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Third in a four-part series

Californians like to think they are a country unto themselves. Politically, that might be true.

[IMGCAP(1)]Democratic and Republican voters in the Golden State tend to coalesce in separate places, with Democrats winning most of the the heavily populated coastal counties, and Republicans taking most of the inland counties. Sound familiar?

California, a large state geographically with an even larger economy, is similarly regionalized according to various industries.

Agricultural interests tend to dominate the central inland counties; wine country tends to dominate some of the sparsely populated northern counties; and the technology industry holds sway in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Northern California counties just to the south, in and around San Jose.

Los Angeles is a company town, driven by the movie industry; Orange County has Disneyland; San Diego the Navy; and Sacramento has state government, which includes a full-time Legislature and several employee-heavy state government agencies.

California has mirrored the nation one additional way lately, and that is in its politics. The Democratic Party this year has seen a surge in voter registration, while the Republicans have been on the decline.

Though the state has generally been a Democratic stronghold since 1992 — the 1994 state legislative races proved a rare exception, and one that reversed itself in 1996 — the GOP’s registration numbers were on the rise in the Golden State in the early part of this decade, when the party was still riding high.

But the Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature and increased their House lead last cycle, are once again on the march in California.

“We see continued dramatic Democratic voter-registration gains across California — especially in key districts like CD 11,” said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic consultant based in California. “The California Republican Party is in a state of perpetual disarray. It looks like another bad year to be a Republican candidate in California.”

The Republicans are targeting freshman Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) in the Republican-leaning 11th district. Last cycle, McNerney upset House Natural Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R).

Most Golden State House Members don’t plan on retiring. But should unexpected vacancies occur, possibly because of jobs in a Democratic White

House in January, there are plenty of ambitious politicians waiting in the wings to take their place.

In the Democratic-leaning 23rd district, a successor to Rep. Lois Capps (D) is already positioning herself, and it’s none other than her daughter, Laura Burton Capps (D).

Incidentally, Burton Capps is married to Bill Burton, a top spokesman for Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) presidential campaign. Her father is former Rep. Walter Capps (D), who died in office in the old 22nd district and was replaced in a special election by her mother.

Last year, Burton Capps left Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) office to join the Ocean Conservancy as president of communications and outreach in an effort to build her environmental credentials. That experience is seen as key to her political viability in the environmentally conscious, coastal 23rd district.

In the solidly Republican 24th district, all GOP eyes remain on Rep. Elton Gallegly (R), who announced that he would retire at the end of 2006 before quickly reversing himself. Gallegly moved fast in announcing that he would run for re-election this cycle.

However, Republicans, teased with the prospect of an open seat in 2006, continue to watch for Gallegly’s exit.

Among those likely to run are former state Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R), his wife, current state Assemblywoman Audra Strickland (R) and state Sen. Abel Maldonado (R). Meanwhile, if Gallegly has anything to say about who succeeds him, look for Simi Valley City Councilman Glen Becerra (R) to get the nod.

The 24th district would have been a natural fit for Tom McClintock (R), whose state Senate seat corresponds with Gallegly’s seat. But McClintock has taken advantage of his statewide popularity and name recognition — particularly among Republicans — to run this year in the Northern California 4th district, which is open because of Rep. John Doolittle’s (R) retirement.

In the Republican-leaning 25th district, state Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R) and state Sen. George Runner (R) might be at least geographically positioned to replace Rep. Howard McKeon (R), should he choose to retire.

In the Republican-leaning 26th district, Rep. David Dreier (R) doesn’t appear to have lost his love for Congress after 28 years. But if Dreier ever seeks higher office, as is often rumored, Republicans such as state Assemblyman Bob Huff and Sen. Bob Margett might consider running for this seat.

State Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D) is also considered a possibility to challenge for the seat.

The 26th district would also generate interest among the scores of local officials serving on the councils of its many incorporated communities.

Some San Bernardino County district supervisors might also explore a bid for this seat, which encompasses portions of eastern Los Angeles and western San Bernardino counties.

In the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles County, there is talk that the next round of redistricting could result in a Hispanic seat being created, possibly threatening the reign of some of the area’s long-standing Democratic Congressmen.

But with the boundaries as they currently stand, there is no shortage of potential House Members, and these same up-and-comers would likely be seen as viable candidates even after redistricting.

In the Democratic-leaning 27th district, Rep. Brad Sherman’s (D) future replacements could be former Los Angeles City Council President and state Sen. Alex Padilla (D), or state Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D). In the Democratic-leaning 28th district, Rep. Howard Berman’s (D) future successor could be City Councilmember Tony Cardenas (D), or Fuentes or Padilla.

Incidentally, Berman’s brother, Michael Berman, is a Democratic political consultant who played a key role in drawing California’s district lines in 2001. He could be involved again in 2011, and if so, this could work out nicely for Congressman Berman.

In the Democratic-leaning 29th district, held by Rep. Adam Schiff (D), state Assemblyman Paul Krekorian (D) and former Assembly Majority Leader Dario Frommer (D) are both seen as viable replacements.

In the Democratic-leaning 30th district, held by 17-term Rep. Henry Waxman (D), L.A. City Councilmember Wendy Greuel and state Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D) are seen as possible successors.

In the Democratic 31st district, held by Rep. Xavier Becerra (D), potential successors include state Sen. Gloria Romero (D).

In the Democratic 32nd district, Rep. Hilda Solis’ (D) future replacements could include any among the politically active Calderon brothers: state Sen. Ron Calderon (D), state Assemblyman Charles Calderon and former state Assemblyman Tom Calderon (D).

“They kind of pass [state legislative seats] around with term limits,” said one Democratic operative who follows Southern California politics. “It’s worked very well for them.”

The Democratic 33rd district is held by Rep. Diane Watson (D), who will be 75 in November. Should she retire anytime soon, eyes could turn to state Speaker Karen Bass (D). Democratic sources say there is already chatter about this possibility.

In the Democratic-leaning 34th district, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D) could be replaced by state Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D).

In the Democratic 35th district, Rep. Maxine Waters’ (D) successors could include state Assemblyman Mike Davis (D). State Sen. Mark Ridley Thomas (D) is also seen as a potential replacement, but only if he loses his race for L.A. County supervisor.

Rep. Jane Harman (D), who holds the Democratic-leaning 36th district seat, is seen as a possible candidate for Senate, should a seat open in 2012. If that happens, those who might run to replace her include state Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D), who ran in the 37th district special election in 2006, and state Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D).

The solidly Democratic 37th district is held by freshman Rep. Laura Richardson (D). Richardson was plucked from the Assembly and anointed the establishment’s choice to succeed Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D) when she died last year.

Some Democrats believe that Richardson could be redistricted out of her seat in 2011, mostly as a result of the embarrassment she caused the Democratic Party earlier this year after news broke that her Sacramento home was foreclosed and that she failed to pay an automobile repair shop for work done on her car.

However, should this seat still exist in any meaningful fashion after 2011, it could once again attract Oropeza — or Long Beach City Councilmember Gerrie Schipske (D).

In the Democratic-leaning 38th district, Rep. Grace Napolitano’s (D) successors might include De La Torre or state Assemblyman Tony Mendoza (D).

In the Democratic-leaning 39th district, Rep. Linda Sánchez (D), the sister of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D), is in just her third term and probably has no intention of retiring. But should she, Schipske is viewed as a strong candidate. De La Torre is also seen as a potential candidate.

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