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When will ex-U.S. Rep. T.J. Cox announce candidacy?

Future control of the U.S. House of Representatives may well come down to just a few 2022 midterm races. Given this, it’s surprising how few California Democrats are asking “What will T.J. Cox do in 2022?”

After all, Cox is the 57-year-old Democratic engineer and entrepreneur who in 2018 helped return Nancy Pelosi to the House Speakership when he bounced GOP dairy farmer and three-term Rep. David Valadao by just 862 votes. This came in California’s once solidly Republican 21st district, which splays across the Central Valley from Fresno to Bakersfield like flattened I-5 roadkill.

However in their 2020 rematch, Valadao wrestled the seat back by 1,522 votes.

So “Valadao-Cox III” would seem inevitable, right? Well, despite Valadao raising $321,000 in the first three months of this year and the June 7 primary now less than a year away, Cox has yet to declare for the race. So Sacto Politico decided to ask him, “What will T.J. Cox do in 2022?”

Cox answered, “The situation is with redistricting in California, particularly in the Central Valley. Nobody knows what the districts are going to look like. So until those maps are drawn, that’s what will dictate if and where I will be running.”

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission isn’t expected to release its preliminary Congressional district maps until toward the end of this year. But Cox isn’t worried about falling behind in fundraising. After redistricting, he expects there to be at least one Republican-controlled “toss-up” district in the Central Valley. Given how important winning that district will be for Democrats, he expects he could raise a million dollar in the first quarter after announcing.

Cox sees a number of redistricting possibilities in the Central Valley given the Supreme Court’s 2013 Selby County v. Holder ruling that struck down Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This ruling is what has allowed so many Republican-led states to today pass voting right restrictions this year.

In California, Section 5 gave extra protections to minority voters in a number of California counties, including Kings and Merced in the Central Valley. This required any changes to voting rules and district boundaries to be pre-cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. But not any more.

Cox said an altered version of CA-21 could still remain the most competitive district. Or incumbent Republicans Devin Nunes and Kevin McCarthy could be pushed into the same district. Or perhaps an entire district could be created largely within Bakersfield’s Kern County, which could wildly redraw things. (Kern’s 900,000 population exceeds the roughly 750,000 needed for a district, and there are just 11,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.)

One redistricting expert contacted said an exclusively Kern County Congressional district seems the least likely scenario. That’s because although Section 5 is no longer in effect, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act still generally prevents diluting districts with a racial minority that constitutes a majority of all eligible voters.

Such districts are referred to as “majority-minority districts.” In California, the Central Valley has two Hispanic majority-minority districts: CA-16 and CA-21. Ten years ago during the last redistricting, CA-21’s “majority-minority” status was maintained by adding its distinctive southern “tail” that dips into Kern County and circles through predominantly Hispanic sections of Bakersfield.

Although Kern County does feature a high number of Hispanic residents, its number of eligible Hispanic voters is actually closer to 40%, which presents challenges for configuring a majority-minority district solely within Kern County. However, Eric McGhee, senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, was less pessimistic about this.

“I think of that [tail] as being dictated by Section 5. So it seems plausible they could get rid of the [tail] without that constraint,” McGhee said. “But either way, the commission will have more flexibility to draw lines than before, and they do prefer splitting as few cities and counties up as possible.”

This would recommend keeping, if possible, Fresno and Bakersfield entirely within their own districts. This was not possible during the last redistricting given other Section 5 requirements. But many other complicated variables remain this redistricting cycle as well.

“It is super challenging for the commission, and there are always tradeoffs,” he said. “Sometimes you do have to split cities and towns, and have strangely shaped districts because people don’t live in circles and squares.”

But district boundaries will certainly shift. This could be most dramatic in the Los Angeles area where California’s one lost House seat will likely come due to that area’s slight population decline the last 10 years. Earlier this year, Dave Wasserman with the Cook Political Report posted (left) that Republican Mike Garcia is most at risk of losing his district with much of it shifting into McCarthy’s CA-23. (Note: CA-21 retains its tail in this mockup.)

Thus the most likely scenario appears to be Valadao’s CA-21 remaining the Central Valley’s main toss-up district. But Cox remains in wait-and-see mode.

“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.”

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