A political battle is raging next door in Arizona that could have major ramifications in California — especially in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Arizona Republican legislative leaders have challenged their state’s independent redistricting commission. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in March, and if the justices strike down Arizona’s commission, political experts predict there would be an immediate legal effort to undo California’s own independent redistricting commission.
The neighborhood might never be the same. Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature would immediately gain the power to redraw the state’s congressional lines. California’s Democratic-controlled Legislature might be given the same power.
Change could be dramatic, especially for some incumbent Valley Republicans.
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“If Democrats draw the map of their dreams, they probably should be able to draw David Valadao out of a seat and draw Jeff Denham out of his seat,” said David Wasserman, an elections analyst and redistricting expert for the non-partisan Cook Political Report. “They probably would be able to shore up Jim Costa.”
That doesn’t mean any of this is going to happen. There’s a lot of moving parts, starting with the nation’s highest court, which could reject the Arizona case and end the speculation.
But Costa, a Fresno Democrat in his sixth congressional term, said he has “talked to enough members of the state Legislature to get a sense that if this decision occurs ... (Democrats) will make a very serious effort” to redraw California’s congressional districts. State Senate and Assembly districts would not be affected.
Change could also come fast. There is a widespread belief that Democrats would at least consider trying to draw the new lines in time for next year’s elections. It could result in a chaotic situation in which incumbents and challengers suddenly find themselves campaigning at least in part to new constituents, less than a year before an election.
This all started when Arizona Republicans filed a federal lawsuit after that state’s redistricting commission drew new congressional districts in 2012. Arizona’s commission has been in place since 2000, but Democrats won five of the state’s nine congressional seats three years ago. It was then that Arizona Republicans spoke up, saying the U.S. Constitution’s Election Clause gives state legislatures the power to determine “times, places and manner” of congressional elections.
If the Supreme Court strikes down Arizona’s commission, it wouldn’t automatically mean California’s would die, too. That would take a successful lawsuit, likely filed in U.S. District Court, said University of Chicago law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos.
But Stephanopoulos — who specializes in election law — said “the suit would have a very good chance of succeeding.”
That’s because in Arizona, the state Legislature has some power in selecting that state’s redistricting commission members. Arizona’s redistricting commission was created when voters approved a 2000 ballot initiative. California voters in 2008 followed suit, approving a ballot initiative that created a 14-member citizens redistricting commission. But in California, the state Legislature plays a much smaller role in selecting the commissioners.
With a precedent-setting Supreme Court ruling that says legislatures have the power to draw congressional districts, legal experts say California’s commission wouldn’t stand a chance of surviving.
Democrats would challenge it because, simply, they could.
“Why not?” said Tony Quinn, a longtime California political analyst and former Republican legislative aide. “They have the opportunity.”
A political guessing game
Just how the new districts would look, how soon they could be in place, or whether Gov. Jerry Brown would veto such an effort in favor of keeping the redistricting commission’s congressional district-drawing power in place, is unknown.
Speculating has become a sort of parlor game among politicians and political watchers.
In almost every educated guess, however, the San Joaquin Valley would see major changes.
Among the more tame suggestions: Costa’s district adds Democrats from Denham’s district and sends Republicans into Denham’s district. Such a change would probably help both incumbents if it came to pass.
A much more radical suggestion has the district of Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy — the No. 2 member of the House behind only Speaker John Boehner — split into thirds. In this scenario, Valadao, a Hanford Republican, Tulare Republican Devin Nunes and Palmdale Republican Steve Knight would each get a chunk of McCarthy’s district, giving McCarthy a difficult path to re-election.
But more than any other, Valadao, first elected to Congress in 2012, is widely assumed to be a prime target for Democrats. Democrats hold a 16-percentage-point voter-registration advantage in Valadao’s 21st Congressional District, but still can’t beat him.
With a previous Supreme Court decision invalidating a Voting Rights Act provision that required Kings and Merced counties be kept whole, experts say it would be simple enough to take the Hanford area and its many Republicans and move them into Nunes’ neighboring district. Those Republicans would then be replaced with Democrats, making the 21st District even more blue than it is now.
Might this be a seat that Democrat Henry T. Perea, who reaches his Assembly term limit next year, could win? How about Bakersfield Democrat Rudy Salas, an Assembly member who last year won endorsements from some Republicans in his re-election bid?
Nunes is skeptical.
He said the Democrats can plot all they want, but the reality is the state’s congressional districts are already about as good as they can get for them.
A longtime supporter of an independent redistricting commission, Nunes nevertheless thinks the lines the commission drew ahead of the 2012 elections were partisan in nature, and favored Democrats.
“There’s not enough (Democrats) to go around because they already gamed the system last time,” he said.
The Cook Political Report’s Wasserman disagrees.
“I’ve drawn that map and the answer is yes, it can be done,” he said. “It actually isn’t that ugly of a map.”
In fact, Wasserman worked up a hypothetical plan that would move Valadao into Nunes’ district and put more Fresno County and Bakersfield Democrats into Valadao’s old 21st District. The same plan would give Costa more Democrats, including perhaps a few of Clovis’ Democratic neighborhoods, while excluding Republican parts of Merced County.
At the same time, Turlock Republican Denham’s district would cross the Coast Range to take in parts of Monterey and Santa Clara counties.
The ripple effect could help another vulnerable Democrat, Julia Brownley of Thousand Oaks, whose district could push farther south into Santa Monica, as well as the seat of the retiring Lois Capps, a Central Coast Democrat who barely won last year.
In fact, Wasserman said the Democrats’ first priority probably should be to help its nine congressional members who won 55% or less of the vote last year.
Besides Costa’s, Brownley’s and the Capps’ seat, the others are Scott Peters of San Diego, Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert, Pete Aguilar of Redlands, Ami Bera of Elk Grove, Jerry McNerney of Stockton and John Garamendi of Walnut Grove.
Tinkering with the lines, however, likely would incite Democratic Party internecine warfare, Nunes said.
Already, he said, California’s Washington Democrats are nervously watching the Sacramento Democrats, who would draw the new congressional lines. Many of these Sacramento Democrats are facing term limits, he said, and would love nothing more than to create a new congressional seat for themselves at the expense of a D.C. incumbent.
“This is really not our fight from my perspective,” Nunes said. “California Republicans have lost all the seats that we possibly could lose.”
The domino effect
Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor and redistricting expert, said Democrats should proceed carefully if they want to redraw the state’s congressional districts.
“With each line change they might tick off one of their own incumbents or anger one or another interest group or run afoul of the Voting Rights Act,” he said. “It is difficult to describe any district change in isolation without thinking about the ripple effects through the entire plan.”
And Nunes said trying to put Valadao with him in the same district wouldn’t guarantee the Democrats victory in the 21st District because it has been trending Republican — specifically to Valadao. There is no requirement that congressional members live in their district, so Valadao could still run in his old district, even if he found his home in Nunes’ district, Nunes said.
Tal Eslick, Valadao’s chief of staff, said it would be a mistake to mess with the redistricting commission’s work because competitive districts result in better representatives — and better public policy.
“California voters spoke clearly,” he said. “Sacramento politicians in smoke-filled back rooms should no longer get to choose their voters by drawing partisan districts. Partisan redistricting creates career politicians and robs voters of the ability to keep their leaders accountable.”
Costa even said he wasn’t in favor of abolishing the California redistricting commission’s power to draw congressional lines, even though he likely would benefit from a redrawing.
“I am hopeful that the Supreme Court does not overturn the Arizona situation,” he said. “That would make all these scenarios moot.”
So what are the chances of any of this becoming reality?
If the Supreme Court throws out Arizona’s redistricting commission, pretty good, legal experts say. Just when it might happen is the tougher question.
“The timing is such that it is possible but not likely at all,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine.
Wasserman agreed, saying because of the time crunch, it was a “pretty small chance Democrats actually are going to change the map before the 2016 elections.”
Still, this is politics, and nobody completely dismissed the possibility that change, possibly big change, could come to California’s congressional districts, and it could come soon.