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Op-Ed

New voting districts give the GOP that boxed-in feeling

GOP complaints about redistricting bias are to be expected — but in fact, the increase in new Democratic-leaning districts reflects the drop in Republican voters in California.

August 03, 2011|By Harold Meyerson

The Citizens Redistricting Commission has drawn its lines, and the latest redistricting, like all redistrictings, has lessons to teach us about California.

First Lesson (for Republicans): It's not the districts, it's you.

The initial Republican reaction to the districts that the commission unveiled was to protest their presumed partisan bias. "We are concerned that this appears to be a tilt towards Democrats," said Tom DelDeccaro, chairman of the California Republican Party. His predecessor as chairman, Ron Nehring, enumerated the GOP's grievances. "The commission created 40 districts where the Democrats are the largest party, and 13 where Republicans hold the plurality," he complained.

But the Citizens Commission, which was called into being when California voters passed Proposition 11 in 2008, was specifically charged with carving districts without regard to their partisan composition. By law, the body is made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans (five of each) and four independents — a clear overrepresentation of Republicans. As of February, there were 7,569,581 registered Democrats in California and just 5,307,411 Republicans — a Democratic advantage of more than 2.25 million. Also, the new districts have to win majority support from each of the three party groups on the commission — which they did.

More ironic still, the Citizens Commission initiative was put on the ballot and funded largely by Republicans. The California Republican Assembly supported the initiative. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's PAC was its No. 1 funder, and Meg Whitman chipped in $200,000. Its most prominent opponents were then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Barbara Boxer and the California Democratic Party.

The GOP chairmen are right that there are more new Democratic-leaning districts than there are new Republican-leaning ones, but that's due not to partisan bias but to their failure to appeal to their fellow Californians. Since the last redistricting in 2001, the number of California Democrats increased by 470,339, while the number of California Republicans declined by 107,522, even as the total number of eligible voters in the state rose by more than 2 million.

The percentage of registered Republicans dropped even in such GOP strongholds as Orange County, where it went from 49.4% in 2001 to 43% this year. (The Democratic share of Orange County voters held steady, while the percentage of independents substantially increased.)

The Republicans' problem in California isn't the districts. It's that their message and candidates appeal to fewer and fewer Californians.

Second Lesson: Coastal California lost some districts to inland California, but that won't make the state more conservative, as some pundits had predicted, because inland California is becoming steadily more Latino. Among the newly created districts where no congressional incumbent lives are two Inland Empire seats — one in the Riverside area, the other in Ontario-Fontana — that are clearly Democratic in orientation and Latino in population.

Because L.A. grew more slowly than the counties to its east, four Los Angeles County Latino Democratic members of Congress — Xavier Becerra, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Linda Sanchez and Grace Napolitano — have seen their four districts consolidated into two (Becerra and Roybal-Allard are in one, Napolitano and Sanchez are in the other).

If two of them stay put, though, there are new Democratic- and Latino-majority districts to the south and east where the other two, in theory, could relocate and win. Veteran Republican Rep. David Dreier, by contrast, now finds himself in a heavily Democratic and Latino district in eastern L.A. County, and there doesn't look to be an open Republican or swing district nearby to which he could move. That's not due to partisan line-drawing; it's entirely the result of the increase in Latinos in California east of Los Angeles.

Third Lesson: There will actually be some — not many — districts that either party could win. Not many, because Californians tend to cluster themselves by ideology, leaving few parts of the state in which equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans abide side by side. In the newly created districts that could go either way, turnout will be key.

In the high-turnout election of 2008, for instance, Barack Obama carried the precincts in a newly created Ventura County congressional district by a hefty 16% margin. In the low-turnout election of 2010, Republican Meg Whitman beat Jerry Brown in those precincts by a slim 1%. Whatever Democrat ends up running for that seat must hope that disenchantment with Obama won't bring turnout down to midterm-election levels.

Indeed, while California Republicans appear almost certain to lose seats in Congress and the Legislature next year, they may prevail in some of the new swing districts if many of the Obama surge voters of 2008 — disproportionately young and minority — respond to the dysfunctional economy by staying home. California looks to be no country for Republicans, but the recession may help them win a close one here and there.

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.

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