The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats shouldn’t pin their House hopes on California redistricting

Democratic candidate Josh Harder speaks with supporters in Modesto, Calif., during his congressional campaign in 2018. Thanks to redistricting measures, Harder, who now represents California's 10th Congressional District, could face a challenging reelection effort. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Dan Morain, former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, is the author of “Kamala’s Way: An American Life.”

Over the coming months, each new congressional redistricting map based on the 2020 Census will be scrutinized for what it portends about the midterm elections next year. With maps being redrawn to the advantage of one political party or the other, will Democrats be able to hold on to their gossamer-thin, eight-seat House majority? Dozens of states are yet to report in. That leaves plenty of agonizing to come about where the midterms are headed.

One immediate worry for Democrats: Their dream of gaining seats in California to counter Republican pickups in red states appears to be in doubt. Political analysts tell me that — given the redistricting plans now coming into view — Democrats will retain a big majority of the state’s 52 seats, but Republicans are unlikely to lose seats and might even pick one up.

Wait, how could that happen in a state that has only turned a deeper shade of blue since the 2010 Census? A quick lesson in redistricting politics is in order.

In the once-every-decade scramble, most states cede redistricting largely to the party in power. In Texas, Republicans are maximizing the GOP’s clout in Washington; Illinois Democrats are doing the same for their own.

But eight states rely on redistricting commissions to try to reduce the unseemly decennial brawl, and one of them has the biggest congressional delegation of all.

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission — made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four commissioners with no party preference — is proving its independence.

So far, the commission has released four “visualizations” of the map it’s devising, based on many variables, including population distribution — but not, in theory, with a keen eye on which party benefits. The most recent iteration came out Wednesday; another round of public comment has commenced. The final map will be unveiled next month.

Republicans have been losing clout in California for more than two decades. But by using direct democracy, in the form of voter initiatives, Republicans with big ideas and money to burn can still have clout.

Charles Munger Jr., the bowtie-wearing son of Warren Buffett’s longtime business partner, was one of the California Republican Party’s biggest donors in the 2000s. A physicist by training, Munger became obsessed with redistricting, and spent $13.5 million on separate initiatives in 2008 and 2010 to create the independent redistricting commission to draw lines for state legislative and congressional districts.

In 2010, Democrats warned that extending the commission’s mandate to include Congress would mean ceding power to states where Republicans control redistricting. Many Republicans also disliked independent redistricting, preferring the old incumbent protection method. Voters shrugged. The measure passed with more than 61 percent of the vote.

Under maps drawn by the first commission (members serve only once), Democrats hold 42 seats to Republicans’ 11. Over the past decade, Republican voter registration fell to 24 percent from 31 percent. But that doesn’t mean the GOP’s delegation will be pared back proportionally by the commission.

Darry Sragow, publisher of the California Target Book, which offers nonpartisan analysis of California’s redistricting process, noted that the maps could change. But as they now are drawn, he said, Democrats would be “lucky” to emerge from the 2022 election with the 42 seats they now hold.

Republican consultant Matt Rexroad, who has worked on California campaigns for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and who closely follows the redistricting process, acknowledges that Republicans have no shot at electing California’s governor next fall, “but can a Republican win a congressional seat in Modesto? Yeah.”

He was talking about the seat held by Democratic Rep. Josh Harder. Based on the early maps, Harder would have had the toughest seat to defend, a point he made in email fundraising appeals: “The first draft map was released this week and it was what we feared — it takes my district and makes it even redder.” Under the latest map, he’d face an even tougher race, the Target Book reports.

The GOP has its own redistricting concerns: Rep. Devin Nunes could see his comfortably Republican district in the San Joaquin Valley reshaped in a way he might find alarming, the California Target Book reports.

One number is certain. Based on the 2020 Census, California for the first time is losing a congressional seat, most likely in the Democratic stronghold of Los Angeles, as the U.S. population shifts toward redder states such as Florida and Texas. That’s another drop in the drip-drip-drip of worrisome news for Democrats.