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Penultimate House map bring small, clarifying changes

Last Saturday, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission issued its last set of draft Congressional district boundaries for public comment before its Dec. 27 deadline for finalization. Unlike previous iterations, these maps changed in much smaller ways, indicating the commission is zeroing on final refinements that make major changes unlikely. (They issued a further tweaking of these tonight.)

Though many of the changes were relatively small, they were also quite clarifying in areas of the state Sacto Politico has been watching closely. Let’s take a last cruise around the state of areas for a current update.

One note on the work of the nonpartisan citizens commission. As the maps finalize, there are always residents whose issues are not – and often cannot be – addressed, and their complaints get amplified. For instance, some establishment Democrats have called citizen redistricting amateur hour. On the other side, one group of Republicans has sued saying it is a rigged partisan effort, even though the five Republican seats on the 14-person commission is far more than the GOP’s 25% share of statewide voter registration.

But in highly inflamed political times, SactoPolitico wants to take a moment to thank the Commission’s members for volunteering for this important duty. The only other option is to return to a system by which some elected officials get to pick their voters (i.e., gerrymandering) – versus the system working the other way, as preferred.

Advantage Still Dems

Conventional wisdom early on had it that because California’s House delegation will shrink from 53 to 52 seats, Democrats are more likely to lose at least one seat from its 42-11 edge. One analogy put forward was a bowl of 53 ball with 42 blue and 11 red. The odds of pulling out a blue ball appeared four times greater.

However, the Sacto Politico has long argued such skin-deep odds-making overlooks more granular realities. This starts with the four California House seats won by less than 3% in 2020 being all currently held by Republicans. With these most competitive seats, the best the GOP can do is hold serve there, but the odds are the Democrats could pick up at least two of these seats.

Based on current map iterations, the first of these would most likely be Mike Garcia’s Los Angeles-area CA-25. There Garcia would lose conservative Simi Valley, which pleases his rematch opponent Democrat Christy Smith, who lost by just 333 votes in 2020.

In CA-21, the latest map are not great news for David Valadao as his new district appears to have gone solidly for Biden in 2020. Plus in 2022, he will not face former Rep. T.J. Cox for a third time (more on Cox below), but instead Democratic State Assemblyman Rudy Salas, who would seem better positioned to energize the new district’s 55.5% Hispanic base.

And in Orange County, the early maps appeared to add some right-leaning voters to Young Kim’s CA-39, but even more left-leaning voters to Michelle Steel’s in CA-48.

Further, redistricting changes elsewhere has put in real play just one Democratically held House seat, which I will come to next. Against this, one more Republican seat (Darrell Issa’s CA-50) has become competitive. Plus there is Devin Nunes’s retirement. Bottomline, if you had your choice of which side of this draft map to play, you would choose the Democrats, as the Republicans face an even chance of dropping from 11 California House seats down to single digits.

Josh Harder’s CD-10

Two-term centrist Democrat Josh Harder first won the CA-10 in the Blue Wave midterms of 2018 by 4½ points. He then won by 10 points in 2020 when his runoff opponent lost his GOP endorsement in a scandal. But redistricting has treated Harder worse than any Democratic Congressional incumbent in California. The last two maps would shift his district from stretching from his hometown of Turlock west to Tracy to now running from Modesto and Turlock eastward into the conservative Sierras.

This would probably change his district from Biden +3 to Trump +9, based on 2020 election results. Even before redistricting, his district was targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) for flipping in 2022. This would all scream “precarious” for Harder if not for the fact no substantial Republican opponent had stepped forward yet. Harder is also a smart moderate who has more than $5.5 million in cash on hand and has called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to cut the state gas tax (now that the federal government has finally stepped up with infrastructure money).

But expect the GOP to field a substantial opponent if the maps finalize in the current general configuration. The intriguing possibility even exists for the GOP to run either incumbent veteran Congressman Tom McClintock (CA-4) or the 36-year-old Assemblyman Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin). Kiley lives in McClintock’s district, achieved some statewide name recognition running in the gubernatorial recall election and has made recent rumblings about moving up to higher office.

Under the new proposed maps, McClintock’s current CA-4 district would be shifted northward. This would merge his main constituent base in Sacramento’s northeast suburbs of Roseville, Rocklin and El Dorado Hills with northern Sierra counties up to Plumas. However, this would shift McClintock from a Trump +10 district to Trump +4.

Interestingly, eight of the Sierra counties he currently represents would make up about half of the territory (but not population) of the new Harder district. This poses the question for McClintock which district he’s prefer to run in – leaving the other potentially for Kiley. Should McClintock stay put, run with a slimmer margin on paper, but against a first-time Democratic opponent in Dr. Kermit Jones. Or enjoy a safer margin but run against the experienced 35-year-old Harder, who currently has more than $5 million more than McClintock in cash on hand?

The smart bet would seem to be McClintock stays put and handles what should be a less intense race against Jones. After all, though the new district would be Trump +4, it did also vote to recall Newsom by 10 points. Then presuming McClintock stays put, this would present Kiley a once-a-decade opportunity to take a shot at a vulnerable but dangerous foe in Harder. Or should Kiley wait his turn for McClintock to retire, though this may not be any time soon?

Central Valley

After Harder’s seat, the southern Central Valley from Fresno south to Bakersfield is the most in flux both in terms of both maps and candidate dynamics. This area’s three Congressional districts are represented by Valadao (CA-21), Nunes (CA-22) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA-23). Getting too exact on map changes gets tricky as it remains the most actively in flux.

But on the candidate side, a known variable is Nunes’ retirement in January, and his current district will have special election to fill out the remainder of his term. This election will use the current boundaries. Then that winner will run later in 2022 within the new boundaries, which are expected to favor the Democrats. The same appears the case for Valadao, who should be locked in a dogfight for most of 2022 against Salas.

Then there’s House Minority Leader McCarthy who sits on a huge war chest and has usually won his district easily. But change is coming to his boundaries too. The current map shows his part of Bakersfield could change dramatically and he could be getting a large chunk of the Fresno area. The Cook Political Report has his current district +14 Republican. It will be interesting where that settles after the map finalizes.

Another wild card is former U.S. Rep. T.J. Cox of Fresno, the Democrat who beat Valadao in 2018, but then lost almost as narrowly to Valadao in 2020. In conversations with Sacto Politico, he has consistently left his options open until all district boundaries finalize. In June he said:

“I’d be interested [running] wherever I can make a difference and win,” Cox said. “I’m not going to run against [fellow Democrat] Jim Costa. But if there is an opportunity to take out Valadao again, I will certainly do that, or even take on McCarthy.”

Last week, he shared: “Yes, waiting on the final maps for me,” he said. “No telling about these seats until the districts are finalized, but yes, [Nunes] leaving improves the position of any [Democrat]. No [Republican] is gong to start with an $11 million war chest, nor the ability to raise that type of money.”

Where’ll Garamendi Go?

Less watched has been the redistricting saga of 76-year-old Democrat John Garamendi. Early drafts sliced up his sprawling CA-3 district centered on Solano and Yolo counties and left him as that rare incumbent without a district. Last month’s map restored an option for him, and this week’s maps firmed this up. However, it is less than ideal for Garamendi.

That’s because Garamendi probably prefer to run in a district that contains his current Democratic base in Solano and Yolo counties, but these are currently slated to merge into a district that most overlaps with the district of Napa Valley Democrat Mike Thompson (CA-5). That new district would include Napa County, the City of Santa Rosa, Lake County, most of Yolo, and some of Solano. Thompson’s residence north of Napa in St. Helena is also in the new district.

However, a new district south of this would be without an incumbent. This district currently runs from the East Bay and Richmond northeast through Vallejo, Fairfield and the Travis Air Force Base. Garamendi currently represents Fairfield and Travis, but his portions of the new district would amount to about 20% of the new district’s population.

Garamendi has previously told the Sacto Politico he is not contemplating retiring. He said, “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.”

But the Richmond-Vallejo-Fairfield district would put him far afield from his Sacramento County home in Walnut Grove, 45 minutes away. Also consider more than 60% of the new district comprises Latino (22.4%), Asian (20%) and black (20%) voters, and all of this may invite a tougher than normal primary challenge from an opportunistic East Bay Democrat.

Sacramento County

California’s capital county has been a fascinating part of the state to watch throughout the Congressional mapping process. At one point, the commission caused much head-scratching when it gutted the county’s clean current two-district map and cannibalized half its population among other counties’ districts. This gave Asm. Kiley a brief, tantalizing glimpse of a competitive Congressional race against Democratic moderate Ami Bera.

But starting with last month’s draft maps, the commission returned to a sensible two-district configuration for most of Sacramento County. However, it did make a significant change. Currently, the county is mostly split between between one largely urban district (Doris Matsui’s CA-6) and one all suburban district (Bera’s CA-7). But now the county is split between northern and southern districts that each have a mix of city and suburbs. This eliminated the threat to Bera from his right, but opened up either Bera or Matsui to potential for a realistic competitive run from their left.

With this penultimate draft, Sacramento County’s proposed northern Congressional district got a little more suburban with the addition of Rosemont and extra parts of Rancho Cordova and La Riviera. The proposed southern district also pushed its northern downtown Sacramento boundary north up to American River. This makes it even more attractive for a strong Progressive candidate, as it pushes the Democratic vote share up to a clean two-thirds and pushed the percentage of 2020 Democratic primary voters who voted for either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to 48%.

These last two stats are important because a high-visibility Progressive candidate in the proposed southern district could theoretically start out as the preferred Progressive candidate of 32% of all voters in the district (48% of 67%). This would be a great starting point in a jungle primary. Plus, the incumbent would lose at least 42% of their previous constituency creating more of a level playing field for an opponent from the same party.

Still up in the air is which district Matsui and Bera will run in. Both of their residences are in the southern district. However, the last boundary changes in downtown Sacramento means this district would contain 58% of Matsui’s current constituents versus 32% of Bera’s. Plus the southern district is 21% Asian-American versus 10% in the northern district.

This could force Elk Grove-resident Bera to run outside his home district; however, the northern district does contain 56% of his current constituents. In addition, the northern district is less Progressive than the southern, which is good for Bera who has the 4th most moderate legislative record of California’s 42 Democrats in Congress.

Bottomline, these last draft Congressional maps have clearly narrowed the variables at play. All that’s left is a last tweaking and then we’ll start seeing a flurry of hats flying into the ring, and perhaps one or two retirements. Stay tuned.

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