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First Calif. House redistricting maps bring surprises

A small tremor rumbled through California politics this week when the state’s Citizens Redistricting Commission released its earliest draft maps of what Congressional, state senate and assembly districts could look like for the next 10 years. Called “visualization maps,” they are designed to give the 14 citizen commissioners and the public something more concrete to respond to as the commission works toward finalizing all maps by December 27.

The political tremor, though, mostly concerned the Congressional maps. That’s because for the first time California is losing a U.S. House seat, going from 53 to 52. Plus this is happening when every seat will be vital in determining which party controls Congress following the 2022 midterms. That said, the maps do come with a big asterisk: this week’s 239 pages of mapping details are very subject to change.

“People should take the visualizations seriously, but not literally – something they used to say about Trump,” quipped Paul Mitchell, a mapping expert with the voting data firm Political Data Inc. “It is a full statewide plan that is relatively balanced, and shows some of what they’ve been getting from public comment and that commissioners have been saying. At the same time, I think a lot of the elements are being put there so that the commissioners can see for themselves and decide, ‘Well, that’s not a good idea.’ ”

What parts of the maps ultimately change is highly speculative at this point. That’s because each addition or subtraction must be offset elsewhere to maintain population balance between district. Plus the overall plan must meet other requirements, such as aspects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With that in mind, here are the five aspects that should raise the most eyebrows.

1. First round to Democrats

By design, the Citizens Redistricting Commission does not score its map changes on a partisan basis. But the maps have huge partisan implications regardless, and Democratic political consultant Steven Maviglio believes the very makeup of the commission – five seats for Democrats, five for Republicans, and four for independents – gives Republicans a disproportionate advantage.

“Despite being outnumbered 2-1 by Democrats in party registrations, Republicans get an even hand in designing the districts. The result in these first maps is one designed to help Republicans in the House and split up many existing districts,” Maviglio said. “That said, the maps are going to be changed again and again before this is over, so nobody should have a stroke over what they are seeing now.”

It is true many existing House districts were significantly reworked. However, some other observers see this initial map as benefiting Democrats more.

For example, the National Republican Congressional Committee is currently targeting four House seats held by incumbent Democrats: John Garamendi’s CA-3, Josh Harder’s CA-10, Katie Porter’s CA-45, and Mike Levin’s CA-49. In different ways, the initial map would take two these seats off the competitive playing field (CA-3 and CA-45). In addition, the Republicans won four seats in 2020 by less than 3 points each, and the CA-25 Mike Garcia seat – won by just 335 votes – would appear to shift strongly toward the Democrats.

Further, the draft maps would seem to put Devin Nunes’ CA-22 Fresno district in play, as well as Darrell Issa’s San Diego area CA-50. On the Democrats side, just one additional district (Ami Bera’s CA-7) would fall into the more competitive range. Thus the net advantage in this round seems blue.

2. Titanic Central Valley battle ahead?

Let’s start in the Central Valley. In the CA-21, this is where over the last two election cycles current incumbent David Valadao (R) and 2018 winner T.J. Cox (D) waged two of the most expensive House races in the country. As previously reported here, Cox is closely watching redistricting to see where he can best help Democrats win back a seat. As he put it, “If there is an opportunity to take out Valadao again, I will certainly do that, or even take on [Kevin] McCarthy.”

The first redistricting map, though, would appear to reduce the chance of a third Valadao-Cox contest, as the commission removed some of the CA-21’s bluer Fresno areas and unifies more western farming areas that are more conservative. This would be good news for Valadao.

But in doing so, this map would also swing Devin Nunes’ district from safely Republican to slightly Democratic with Biden carrying that preliminary district by 3 points in 2020. While Nunes would be vulnerable, he already has nearly $11 million in the bank, but you would expect Democrats to flood cash into the district for any chance to topple Nunes.

Cox had previously hoped the commission would pull out Kern County’s 437,000 registered voters – including all of Bakersfield – from Valadao’s and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s districts, and contain it wholly within one new competitive east-west district. That did not happen.

“My initial thoughts are the maps for the Central Valley violate the two overarching principles of the commission: one, grouping communities of interest and, two, creating the smallest possible geographic footprint. The districts should run east-west rather than north-south. It’s crazy that [McCarthy’s] former 23rd would now run all the way up to Tuolumne County and Valadao’s 21st would pick up parts of Merced County,” Cox said.

Mitchell saw a separate issue: the Central Valley is required to have two “majority-minority” districts given the area’s large Latino population. These are districts in which a highly populous minority group should represent a majority of voters. The initial visualization designates Nunes’ district as one of these.

“But that is nuts,” Mitchell said. “It wouldn’t be an effective minority-majority district there. The Latino population is historically too low-performing [in terms of turnout], and it would elect someone who isn’t the candidate of choice for the Latino community. Nunes is not the candidate of choice for Latinos, but he would still get re-elected in that district.”

3. Loss of Black majority district in L.A.

The state’s loss of one House seat was widely expected to occur in Los Angeles County given this is where most of the population decline occurred. This did happen, but the maps initial combining of two predominantly African-American districts was widely panned.

Said the Cook Political Report redistricting guru David Wasserman in a story Friday, “It merges the last two predominantly Black districts in Los Angeles, those held by Rep. Karen Bass (CA-37), who is leaving to run for mayor in 2022, and Rep. Maxine Waters (CA-43). That’s not going to go over well with Black community leaders, who until this decade had three opportunity districts in the area.”

Mitchell said much the same and expects this to be addressed in later map revisions.

4. Purple bruise in Sacramento County

Another big surprise on the preliminary map saw Sacramento County go from well-contained largely within two districts – one for the city, and one for its suburban and unincorporated areas – to slicing it among three districts. A little slicing was expected given the county’s 8.5% population growth over the last decade, but the redistricting severed the Sacramento’s largest suburb, Elk Grove, and grafted it atop of Jerry McNerney’s mostly San Joaquin County district centered on Stockton and Lodi.

The first repercussion of this is it cuts off the southern half of Ami Bera’s current CA-7 (including his hometown of Elk Grove). To replace that population, Bera’s district would expand north into conservative Placer County including the suburbs of Roseville and Rocklin. This would change Bera’s district from being solidly Democratic with a current statistical potential to turn Progressive into a more purplish district.

This could also create a major face off for Bera against Assemblymember Kevin Kiley (R) of Rocklin. Kiley has shown great interest in moving up legislatively. In 2020, he lost a bare-knuckle intraparty fight for state senate to Brian Dahle. Then this year, Kiley received an inordinate amount of coverage for his very late addition to the Newsom recall field of replacement candidates.

Kiley ultimately finished a distant seventh behind three Republicans, two Democrats, and “none of the above.” But his main goal seemed achieving greater name recognition, which would only add to his ability to raise the many millions needed for a head-to-head against Bera.

Neither Bera nor Kiley’s teams provided comment for this article, but such a matchup would probably prove a pretty negative and expensive slug fest. Bera’s closet includes the previous jailing of his aged father for major campaign finance felonies. Since then, Bera has feasted at the corporate funding trough, including from some of the most heavily and repeatedly fined U.S. corporations and the nation’s largest opioid makers and distributors.

This would play to a Kiley strength as he accepts no special interest donations; however, he is linked by rhetoric and company to the extremist Trump base of his party. This was on display in March when he knowingly rallied with and sold books at an event co-organized by an individual who had recently called for Americans to arm for civil war. He and state GOP Chair Jessica Patterson also shared that stage with several other speakers associated with violent speech, hate groups and QAnon.

5. Garamendi: Man without a district?

A largely unnoticed map surprise is the loss of one district in northern part of California north of the Bay Area and Stockton. This region would go from being largely served by eight districts to seven. This appears related to rural population loss, with the extra seat shifting to the East Bay.

In this map iteration, this resulted in a slicing up of Democrat John Garamendi’s CA-3 with its different parts moving as follows:

  • Garamendi has two large Democratic bases in his current CA-3. The one in Yolo County including the liberal college city of Davis would largely go north into Doug LaMalfa’s very red CA-2.

  • The second one in Solano County would be absorbed into Democrat Mike Thompson’s CA-5 centered on Napa County and that would also add Marin County.

  • Sutter and Yuba counties would merge into Tom McClintock’s very Republican CA-4 in the east.

  • Interestingly, Garamendi lives south of Elk Grove in Walnut Grove. This community (along with Elk Grove from Bera’s district) would fully shift into Jerry McNerney’s CA-9 district that includes Stockton and Lodi.

Then Garamendi’s few options would include either launching uphill campaigns against LaMalfa or McClintock, or take on one of his fellow Democratic incumbents. Garamendi’s also 76. So retirement could be an option as well, but in a statement to Sacto Politico, Garamendi seemed to dismiss that option.

“I am running for reelection in whatever district the independent commission designs. I love my work representing my constituents in Congress, solving issues for individuals every day. We will not comment on the commissions’ work, they are independent,” he said.

In comments during this week’s map rollout meetings, only a few would seem to Garamendi. A couple commissioners mentioned a desire to keep the Delta region communities contained in one district. The simplest solution would be for McNerney’s district to simply absorb Clarksburg, but this wouldn’t necessarily change dynamics for Garamendi. However, if other northerly changes discussed happened – such as keeping Shasta, Trinity and Tehama together or not splitting Placer County – a domino chain could theoretically result that produces a district that contains Yolo County, Elk Grove and the Delta region.

So wait and see there, but a last surprise in reporting this piece came when Mitchell, the political map expert, was asked how exciting a time this is for him. After all, redistricting happens just once every 10 years, and the bevy of maps to pore over must be terribly exhilarating for him, right?

No, he laughed.

“I can’t geek out because it is too busy,” he said. “I don’t have time to really love this as much as I probably should. There are about 80 redistricting projects on our plates. I was up until 2 a.m. this morning doing redistricting work for the City of Long Beach. Tonight, I will be up late doing an L.A. County memo. It’s non-stop.”

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