The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are upset about California’s redistricting. But it’s not as bad as they think.

A California voter walks to cast his ballot during a special election in May 2020. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
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Republicans are upset over California’s recent redistricting efforts, which weaken a number of congressional seats held by GOP incumbents. Their criticisms are fair, but Republicans would do well to recognize that the new map also provides the party a number of pickup opportunities that could give them an unexpected boost in next year’s midterms.

The map, which California’s supposedly independent redistricting commission voted to approve last week, is meant to be neutral, but it is not. As David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report explains an excellent analysis, it weakens three Republican seats while providing no commensurate shifts for Democratic-held districts.

For example, Donald Trump carried GOP Rep. Tom McClintock’s current seat by 10 points, but he would have won the putative new seat by only two. Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Josh Harder received an eight-point bump with his seats moving from Biden +3 to Biden +11. Much of these shenanigans were accomplished by turning House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s seat into a Republican vote sink. Its tortured lines put every conceivable Republican community in the southern Central Valley into his district, turning an already safe Trump +21 seat into an ultra-safe Trump +31 one.

The trouble with this analysis is that it overlooks a unique feature of California down-ballot races. In most of the nation, Trump’s share of the vote is an excellent predictor of Republican performance. But that’s not necessarily the case in California. The GOP gained four seats in the state in 2020, even though Joe Biden carried all of them. Each of those new candidates ran much closer to California’s losing Republican gubernatorial nominee John Cox in 2018 than to Trump last year. Three of the four ran within 1.1 points of Cox’s showing, and David G. Valadao, who previously lost his congressional seat in 2018, ran only 2.5 points ahead of Cox to regain his seat in 2020.

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If one looks at how Cox would have performed in the new map, the outlook for Republicans looks less pessimistic. According to the conservative election analysis site RRH Elections, Cox would have won eight of the new seats by at least 10 points. He also would have received between 48percent and 50 percent in five highly competitive seats. Given the positive outlook for the GOP nationwide next year, quality Republican candidates would have an excellent chance of winning these seats. If the GOP were to win all five, they would hold 13 California seats, a gain of two from their current standing.

That’s not the end of the story. Cox would have received at least 45 percent in four other seats, including two held by Valadao and Mike Garcia, another incumbent Republican. Each won excruciatingly close races in 2020 and redistricting weakened their seats weakened by a point or two, suggesting they would narrowly lose a rematch in 2020 conditions.

But recall that Biden won the 2020 popular vote by 4.5 points, and Democrats won the national popular vote for the House by 3.1. Republicans currently lead by 2.4 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average for the generic congressional ballot, a 6.9-point swing from Biden’s victory margin. GOP candidates in Virginia and New Jersey fared even better in 2021 races, running around 13 points ahead of Biden’s margins. A seven-point swing from 2020 would make the two at-risk incumbents at least tossups to retain their seats; a 2021-style swing would propel them to easy victories and put two more Democratic seats at risk.

This means California Republicans could win as many as 17 House seats in 2022 under the most favorable conditions. They would need to nominate strong candidates in each district and ride a massive, anti-Democratic wave, but that’s exactly what Democrats did when they gained 41 House seats nationally in the 2018 anti-Trump wave. It’s hard, but not at all inconceivable.

Winning these seats would require Republican candidates to do exactly what they showed they could do in Virginia: appeal simultaneously to Hispanics, Asians and some moderate White suburbanites. Each of the seats in play has large numbers of one or more of these groups. National polling data has also consistently shown Hispanic voters moving to the GOP during Biden’s first year, with the most recent Wall Street Journal poll showing the two parties tied among Hispanic voters. That’s probably an outlier, but progressive election analyst Ruy Teixeira notes that the evidence for a sharp Democratic decline among Hispanics is widespread and consistent. Pew Research Center’s survey of 2020 validated voters found Biden carried Hispanics by 21 points. California Republicans will do very well even if Democrats win by 10 points among this demographic in 2022.

All of this suggests that California’s redistricting is no death sentence for Republicans. If the national environment still favors the GOP in November, the Golden State could give McCarthy a strong cushion of new members as he takes over the speakership.