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New district maps threaten Republicans' seats in Congress

Some Republican Party leaders say privately that the GOP could lose up to five of its 19 California congressional seats. But the redistricting also opens some new opportunities.

December 11, 2011|By Jean Merl and Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-San Dimas) has seen big changes in his district boundaries that tilt its registration toward Democrats.
House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-San Dimas) has seen big… (Charles Dharapak, Associated…)

Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington — It's no secret that deep blue California has been a tough place for Republicans, with GOP registration falling to less than one-third of voters and Democrats holding all the statewide offices. Now, new political maps threaten to cost several of the party's prominent congressmen their jobs.

That is especially true for some of the California Republican delegation's long-serving members.

Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas, a 30-year House veteran who chairs the Rules Committee, has yet to say whether he will run or retire next year in the wake of big changes in his district boundaries that tilt its registration toward Democrats. Ditto Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands, dean of the state's GOP delegation, and Rep. Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley, whose home now lies in another Republican's district.

Their decisions are likely to be influenced by the outcome of a federal lawsuit filed by Republicans seeking to set aside the new maps, which were drawn by a citizens commission rather than by lawmakers protecting incumbents. GOP Reps. Ed Royce of Fullerton and Gary Miller of Diamond Bar are preparing to battle each other after their homes were encompassed by the same district.

Party leaders aren't happy about the situation. Some say privately that the GOP could lose up to five of its 19 California congressional seats.

"Some of their good friends didn't do well in the redistricting," said former GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum, now publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks congressional and legislative races. "What they ought to be upset about is their horrible registration numbers…. Until they can solve that problem, they shouldn't be running around demanding more seats."

The redistricting commission was not permitted to consider an incumbent's address or party registration in creating the new voting districts, so Democrats also face some intraparty battles next year. One of those fights will be a costly clash of two titans in the San Fernando Valley, Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman.

But Democrats, who make up around 44% of the state's registered voters, generally are considered the potential winners in the new political landscape, poised to pick up a handful of congressional seats beyond the 34 they now hold in the 53-member state delegation. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee already has targeted four California Republicans in radio ads as part of an effort to win back the House majority next year.

Those four are Reps. Dan Lungren of Gold River, Jeff Denham of Atwater, Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs and Gallegly. The committee also is eyeing new, open seats in Long Beach and Riverside.

Despite some pessimism about how the GOP will fare, some in the party say they have a shot at those two open seats as well — and at some now held by Democrats, such as Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara. Her district, once derided as the "ribbon of shame" for its skinny, gerrymandered shape along the coast, has been made more compact and more evenly divided between Democrat and Republican voters.

"There are some Republican opportunities," especially if 2012 proves to be a really good year for the GOP, said David Wasserman, House editor of the nonpartisan, Washington-based Cook Political Report.

Royce, who is helping recruit House candidates in California for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he thinks the party could at least keep the number of seats it has now. And he said Republican Rep. Bob Turner's upset victory in a New York special election in September has boosted interest from possible contenders in California races.

"We've had inquiries from a number of potential candidates who are looking at the lay of the land," Royce said. "They're looking at seats they would not have looked at prior to that election…. They now perceive they are going to be the next Bob Turner."

The Republican committee said former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who is challenging Capps, and Kim Vann, a Colusa County supervisor who plans to run against Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Creek), are among them.

Many other factors will shape GOP fortunes next year: whatever coattails might extend from the presidential elections, how voters feel about incumbents and the party in power, whether California Republicans can improve their share — less than 31% — of state voters and the party's ability to recruit attractive candidates.

Rep. Devin Nunes said his party's fortunes rest largely on its ability to "become a different type of Republican Party" in the coming decade, beginning with next year's elections.

"We have to run younger candidates," the Tulare congressman said. "We have to recruit minorities" and more women.

Hoffenblum holds similar views. Asked what advice he would give party leaders, he replied:

"Get some strong candidates and go out and win some."

jean.merl@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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