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Guest Editorial: Did California Democrats overplay their hand in redistricting, assuming racial homogeneity and old trends?

California’s independent citizen redistricting commission just unanimously approved the state’s new congressional map three days ago, on December 20th. The maps will be certified by Dec. 27. Surprisingly, it doesn’t alter the balance of power as dramatically as it could have done. This was not entirely shocking as I got heavily involved with my local Orange County redistricting, and saw groups on the left, especially those advocating for Asians and Latinos, hold strong on their interests that were not entirely concerned about partisan advantages.

Currently, California has 42 Democratic seats and 11 Republican. However, California’s population growth trailed that of other states, and will now be losing one seat. That seat is one in Long Beach where Democratic incumbents Lowenthal and Royball-Allard were drawn into the same district. Both are retiring so it will now be a likely Democratic open seat.

On paper, things look good for Democrats. Holding all the political power in California, the redistricting commission nonetheless is named Independent, but Democratic interests prevail, as it did 10 years ago when a longstanding 34-19 Democrat-Republican split in Congress during the 2000’s was broken up and Democrats made consistent gains over the 2010’s, eventually getting as many as 46 seats in 2018.

According to fairness metrics, this new map is moderately biased towards Democrats. However, I caution the short-sightedness, as Democrats in their desire to gain more seats, have created more vulnerabilities than they may have imagined.

Before further analysis, let’s look at some key changes, from Northern California to Southern California:

  • Democratic Rep. Josh Harder’s district went from an R+1 to R+17 district.
  • Republican Rep. Devin Nunes’ 21st district went from R+11 to D+16, which probably contributed to his decision to retire.
  • Republican Rep. Tom McClintock’s district went from solidly R+15 to a weaker R+8.
  • Republican Rep. David Valadao’s seat is slightly more blue than it is under the current map, from D+9 to D+10.
  • Republican Rep. Mike Garcia’s exurb/suburb Los Angeles district went from D+5 to D+8.
  • Republican Rep. Young Kim’s district went from D+6 to D+4, making her a favorite for re-election.
  • Democratic Rep. Katie Porter’s new district went from D+6 to R+4.
  • Democratic Rep. Mike Levin’s seat is also slightly less secure from D+7 to D+6.
  • Republican Rep. Darrell Issa’s district is 5 points more Republican in the new map.
  • Republican Rep. Michelle Steel has been drawn into a Democratic-leaning district (D+6), which is a big shift from her current highly competitive (R+2) district. 
  • Republican Rep. Ken Calvert’s district is also 6 points bluer than under the current map, although the seat is still Republican-leaning at R+7.

One-third of the new districts are now majority-Hispanic, an increase of about 3 districts, which tracks with California’s natural population growth and demographic shift towards Latinos. It will continue the trend of increasing Latino representation and hence, more power for Latino voters.

The question on everyone’s mind is what will the CA House delegation be after the 2022 elections? 

While Democrats could certainly pick up seats and some outlets are reporting that this has been a win for Democrats, there are many prominent Democrats who are crying foul over the redistricting as well, presciently seeing what I see. It’s almost like they made these calculations in a vacuum and are counting on red districts getting bluer, which certainly was the trend until 2018, but without taking other factors into consideration. 

2020 was surprisingly a receding of waters and Republicans gained 4 seats, while conservatives swept the ballot initiatives. In addition, a pesky dynamic of minority voters going Republican or supporting President Trump makes prognostications iffy at best.

With President Biden’s approval rating plummeting, it is likely that an overall blanket effect may even save Rep. Steel (R-CA), who’s district went from a Republican advantage to D+6.  Her colleague Young Kim (R-CA) actually won in a D+6 district last round, so there is plenty of evidence that despite voting against the top of the ticket, Asian American voters would split their ticket and vote for a Republican representative even in a Democratic district.

Bottom line: in a Democrat wave year, this map would be a great guarantee for Democrats to pick up seats and get back to that 45 or 46 high water mark they achieved in 2018. However, in a Republican wave year, Democrats could actually lose seats and possibly even get under 40. The likeliest scenario will be a 40D-12R split with a net gain of 1 Republican and a net loss of 2 Democrats.

The calculations seem to once again, take for granted minority voting behavior, arrogantly assuming they will stick with the Democrats. Valadao, a Republican, won in a D+9 district and arrogant Democratic prognosticators like Wasserman are overly confident that “it got bluer”. In the end, it’s a 1 point shift that could easily be threatened by Biden’s low standing and Hispanics moving towards the GOP, especially rural ones.  This also applies to Rep. Mike Garcia’s Los Angeles exurb-suburban seat.

In a Republican wave year, four more Democratic seats are now in play. Katie Porter’s district (D+6 to R+4) is the obvious one that has been wiped out. But Mike Levin’s D+6 district is now in play. This leaves Porter with an option to run in Levin’s, or Correa’s district, or try to challenge either Young Kim or Michelle Steel.

Besides those two Orange County districts, two other Democratic incumbents are now “in play” in a Republican wave year. This includes Jerry McNerney’s (D+14 to D+8) and Jim Costa’s (D+17 to D+7) in the Central Valley. Costa may just run in Nunes’ district in the Democratic portion of Fresno, which would give the GOP another opportunity in an open seat. Or he may just retire altogether, as he turns 70 years old.

It seems that the gerrymandering on paper gives the Democrats an advantage and those with shallow analysis into the demographics and numbers will cheer, assuming old trends hold. But the reality is many more seats are now open to flipping to Republican in a national environment that is not 2016 or 2018, or even 2020.

This guest editorial was written by Marc Ang. Marc Ang is a community organizer in Southern California and the founder of Asian Industry B2B.