Can Sacto Progressives gain from House redistricting?

California is among the most progressive states in the U.S. This is reflected in Congress with 22 of the 96 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) hailing from the Golden State. Yet, Sacramento stands apart as the state’s largest Democratic-dominated metro area not represented by at least one progressive House member.

But a precinct-level analysis of the current draft Congressional maps issued on Nov. 10 by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission show a potential to help change that. Of course, this comes with the standard caveat: the maps could change a little or a lot by the time by Dec. 27 when they must be finalized. However, if they remain fairly similar in th Sacramento area, the prospects for local Progressives could strongly benefit from:

  1. The redrawn Congressional borders bisecting the City of Sacramento and more evenly distributing the city’s large progressive population, and

  2. Eroding some of the normal incumbency advantage, with both U.S. Reps. Doris Matsui and Ami Bera losing roughly half their current constituents.

“If these district boundaries hold or something similar with some slight tweeks, Democrats will fair very well, but not necessarily Democratic incumbents,” said Joshua Cameron, a Sacramento-area political communications strategist with the consultancy PAPR. “If I were a progressive challenger, I would definitely be smiling and very much like the way these maps are written.”


DUELING LESSONS, STRATEGIES


Yet, other area Progressives appear less excited by these shifts. This includes Amar Shergill, an Elk Grove attorney and statewide chair of the California Democratic Party Progressive Caucus. Despite the changes, he doesn’t predict any great change in fortunes for Progressives in Sacramento or even statewide. After redistricting concludes, he recommends Progressives identify just four or five seats across the state – out of more than 180 state and federal offices that will be on the 2022 midterm ballot – and focus their collective energy on shifting those to the Progressive column.

“There is no point in Progressives throwing themselves against a brick wall on losing races. We need to be strategic,” Shergill said. “Look, we won the state for Bernie Sanders [in 2020 presidential primary] because we did the work and we did it strategically. There’s no reason we can’t focus our statewide resources on a few targeted races, win them, and start building some real power in the state legislature.”


However, others believe the proper lesson from Sanders’ Super Tuesday victory is to keep the foot on the gas, not fit their engine with a restrictor plate. They point to not just Sanders’ primary win but also – when combined with Elizabeth Warren’s third place finish (13.2%) – how the two main progressive candidates combined for 49.2%. That is just under half of all votes cast in a very high-turnout, highly competitive primary. This verified that Progressives are by far the largest part of the California Democratic Party. Not a tiny faction.

Limiting where Progressives attempt to add seats in 2022 to just a handful would also seem to ignore how many California members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus did not win their House seats on the first try. However, those defeats helped lay the groundwork for later victories. This includes U.S. Reps. Ro Khanna, Mark DeSaulnier, Mark Takano, Juan Vargas and Sara Jacobs. Rep. Judy Chu also lost her first attempt for State Assembly. Even pro-corporate moderate Ami Bera didn’t win his current Sacramento House seat until his second try.


Plus in an area like Sacramento, it could take Progressives more than one competitive election cycle to establish a deeper, more cohesive community that goes beyond issue advocacy and works to win more seats. Cameron sees that as an important current hurdle to overcome.


“In my experience, there’s definitely a distinct difference between Sacramento Progressives and Progressives elsewhere in the state, though there are exceptions,” he said. “As a rule, Sacramento Progressives tend to be much more focused on the symbolism of action than on the actual acquisition and retention of power.”


An indication of this is how few Sacramento-area progressives – including the activists – are even aware that Sanders and Warren combined for a near majority of their county’s Democratic primary vote. Also, the vast number of local progressive donors are generally unaware of local activist groups and send the most of their donations outside the county. However, robust, high-profile local races have a tendency to create long-term benefits by bringing together, educating and maximizing all parts of a like-minded community


SHIFTING SACRAMENTO MAPS


Fortunately in California politics, the every-10-year nonpartisan redistricting process provides a regular jolt to status quo thinking and dynamics. A good example is found in the currently proposed new district boundaries within Sacramento County.

About 96% of Sacramento County residents live in either Matsui’s CA-6 or Bera’s CA-7. The CA-6 consists mainly of the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento, while the CA-7 encompasses the county’s main suburban areas from Citrus Heights east to Folsom and south to Elk Grove.


Under the latest maps, this city/suburb Congressional split would be replaced by a north/south division of the county. The northern Sac County district (see left) would include the northern half of Sacramento and extend east to Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks and Rancho Cordova.


The southern Sac County district would contain West Sac, the southern half of Sacramento, and the rest of Sacramento County, except for still solidly Republican Orangevale and purplish Folsom. Those communities are grouped into Rep. Tom McCormick’s current district in order to balance populations.


The first progressive implication of such a redrawing would be to more evenly distribute Progressive votes. Here is a summary including how the proposed new map configuration would have voted in the last three elections:

In the proposed new districts, this would give Progressives a potential S+W (Sanders+Warren) starting base of 46%-47% of blue-leaning voters. This S+W is similar to or higher than the S+W enjoyed by six current California members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. (The lowest S+W of a CPC member belongs to Ted Lieu’s Los Angeles district at 42.3%.)


Shergill said he feels Progressives can’t really mount a serious bid to unseat a more moderate Democratic incumbent unless Democrats comprise at least 65% of that district’s vote.


TOP-TWO PRIMARY CHALLENGE


“In general not just in Sacramento, but across the state, I would say any district held by a Democratic incumbent in the 55% to 65% range will be incredibly hard to unseat in the current top-two jungle primary system,” he said. “This means the Republican will probably get 35-45% in the primary. This leaves little room for a challenge from within the same party to slip through” and get on the general election runoff ballot.


However with the proposed southern Sac County district featuring more than 65% for both Biden in the 2020 general and against the Newsom Recall, this would appear a possible Progressive target district in 2022. Still Shergill said he views it as a poor bet for Progressives. He believes only if an incumbent Democrat can be knocked off in the primary by finishing third or lower would the Progressive have a chance of winning in November. This is because, in a two-Democrat runoff, he would expect most Republican voters to strategically shift their share of the vote to the more moderate incumbent.


There is logic to this view, but the Republican base may not be as predictable as this. For many years now, registered Republican voters who have been trained to consider any Democrat a “Pelosi socialist.” So if faced by a two-Democrat run-off, would most Sacramento-area Republicans be more likely to vote strategically for the less “socialistic” Democrat (the incumbent), or lodge an anti-incumbent vote against the “devil they know,” or refuse to vote for either “evil” at all and lower the GOP turnout? Or some mix?


Thus projecting exactly where the Republican vote would go and in what proportions is not easy. Plus many Republicans and right-leaning independents do want comprehensive drug cost reform and to end politician’s addiction to corporate money – issues Progressives more strongly identify with than Sacramento Counties current incumbents.


INCUMBENT ADVANTAGE EROSION


Incumbents also dislike district map changes as this infuses new voters and uncertainty into a race. Part of the natural incumbent advantage comes from the incumbent’s existing name recognition and relationship with current constituents. This ranges from most current voters having already elected them one or more times to attending local town hall meetings with the incumbent to receiving help from the incumbent’s office staff to navigate all variety of federal issues from passports to small business applications to Medicare disputes.


But swap out a large portion of a district, and this creates more of a level playing field for an opponent with the new voters. For Bera and Matsui, the proposed current maps would swap out roughly half of their current constituencies, and this represents a very welcome opportunity for any opponent.


Interestingly, the current maps would put both Matsui and Bera’s district residences in the new southern Sac County district. It is unlikely they would run against each other, and nothing prevents a California candidate from running in a different district.


But is unclear which incumbent would run in the northern Sac County district. Bera’s CA-7 would contribute about 50% of the voters in the proposed new northern Sac County district, and 47% to the southern district. So he might have a slight preference for the northern district from that perspective. However, he would lose all of his South County base around his hometown of Elk Grove.


In turn, Matsui’s CA-6 would contribute 46% of voters to the northern district and 52% to the southern district. Plus, 21% of the southern district would be of Asian descent versus 10% in the northern district. This would seem to make Matsui more likely to prefer the southern district, but given her age (78), would she insist on this given she will eventually retire?


Plus, political races aren’t run on paper. Data is never destiny, and only represents a starting point. So much depends on the particular qualities of the candidate and their ability to mobilize their supporters. But here is a tantalizing what-if:


What if a strong progressive candidate of Asian descent decided to run in the southern district negating a Matsui advantage if she ran there? Say respected first-term Sacramento City Councilmember Mai Vang, who has been a Congressional staffer, has an inspirational biography, and has been a great organizer within her South Sacramento community in combatting the pandemic? That would be a formidable opponent for either Bera or Matsui.


This is pure speculation of course, but it’s also exactly the kind of probing and analysis smart political movements must engage in to capitalize on their growing numbers and not leave any new electoral advantage on the table.


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