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Republicans Ponder Putting New California Map to the Voters

With the nonpartisan California redistricting commission scheduled to complete its work Monday, state Republicans are seriously weighing whether to seek a referendum that could throw out the results and force the state Supreme Court to draw lines for next year’s election. The new plan could jeopardize as many as a half-dozen of Republicans’ 19 House seats in the California delegation.

“It’s hard to believe that the Supreme Court can draw worse lines for Republicans,” said Jim Brulte, the former Senate GOP leader who remains active in state politics as a partner with California Strategies, a public-affairs firm.

But he added that Republicans are divided on how to proceed and that some may place a higher priority in overturning proposed lines for the state Senate, which could result in the GOP’s loss of veto-power leverage with one-third of Senate seats. “They would have to move quickly,” said Brulte, who is not involved in any possible redistricting challenge.

The results of the commission, created by voter approval of separate referendums in 2008 and 2010, have generated considerable discussion in recent months. But little public attention has been paid to the prospect of an additional referendum that could throw out the commission-drawn lines and the possible consequences.

To challenge the redistricting plan, petitioners would need to file more than 500,000 signatures by Nov. 15, according to a timetable prepared by Dave Gilliard, a prominent Sacramento-based Republican consultant. Each of the four redistricting plans — for districts in Congress, the state Senate, the Assembly and the tax-levying Board of Equalization — would require a separate petition.

Once signatures are verified, the commission plans would be on hold until after the 2012 election, Gilliard wrote in his analysis. “The Supreme Court hires special masters to draw lines for the 2012 election,” he wrote. If the referendum passes, “the Court lines stay in effect for the decade. If the referendum fails, the commission lines go into effect in 2014.” The referendum could be next June or November, California sources said.

Other GOP insiders said that they have heard that Republican political powerhouse Karl Rove might support such a referendum. But Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the Rove-backed American Crossroads group, said he has heard nothing about a Crossroads-backed lawsuit or referendum.

And a House Republican campaign source said he has heard “very little discussion” of a legal challenge to the redistricting plan. In contrast to the court suit that Illinois Republicans have filed against the plan drawn by that state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature, the GOP strategist said, “it would be harder for California Republicans to challenge a nonpartisan commission.”

Despite their prospective loss of several House seats in California, some Republicans are relieved that the results won’t be worse in the Democratic-tilting mega-state. They note that the bipartisan redistricting plan approved in 2001, which protected the political status quo, helped Republicans prevent the alternative of losing as many as five seats if Democrats had drawn that plan.

Since the 2002 elections, only one House seat has changed party control — the northern California seat that Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) won in 2006 by unseating then-Rep. Richard Pombo (R). And since then, GOP political clout has continued to weaken statewide. The state was notably absent from last November’s nationwide Republican sweep. Despite initial predictions of a close contest, GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman took only 41 percent of the vote against Democrat Jerry Brown even though she spent more than $160 million. Carly Fiorina (R) did not fare much better against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D).

Based on the state’s spicy redistricting history, a plan drawn by the Supreme Court likely would jeopardize incumbents in both parties and create several swing districts in the 53-seat delegation. A court review could also weigh arguments of whether the commission has been sufficiently responsive to minority-group interests under the 1965 Voting Rights Act or relevant state laws.

The proposed map creates nine Hispanic-majority districts, short of the 11 that have been sought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and other advocacy groups. They have not revealed whether they plan to file their own legal challenges.

House Members in both parties already have been making plans for how they will respond to the expected redistricting lines. The commission released its tentative proposal in late July and invited public comment. For now, incumbent matchups are expected with at least two pairs of veteran Members: Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley, and Republican Reps. Gary Miller and Ed Royce in parts of Los Angeles and Orange County.

Other Members of both parties have not announced decisions on how they will handle potentially difficult options. They include Republican Reps. David Dreier and Dan Lungren, and Democratic Reps. Joe Baca, Janice Hahn, Laura Richardson and Linda Sánchez. Some of them could face other lawmakers, perhaps in primaries, depending on possible retirements and whether other Members decide to run.

Based on recent reports and other speculation, potential retirees include Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza and Republican Reps. Elton Gallegly and Jerry Lewis, plus other Members who have lost their political bases under the proposed map. The possible referendum and new Supreme Court map, of course, could overturn many of those tentative plans.

“The lines won’t stay the same,” a top aide to a veteran GOP Member said.

The redistricting dynamics, which have created a busy time for California political consultants, will cause turmoil for many House Members in any case. Republicans have only 14 safe seats under the new lines, leaving five swing districts, according to a lengthy analysis by Paul Mitchell of Sacramento-based Redistricting Partners and released by Brulte.

But Democrats have their own problems.

“Depending on how many incumbents decide to challenge each other and how many open seats are left, there is a possibility of 12 competitive primary elections, some as a result of four potential open seats,” Mitchell wrote. In addition to the heralded Berman-Sherman face-off, other potential Democratic matchups could include Hahn and Richardson, Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa, and Sánchez and Rep. Grace Napolitano.

With Monday’s scheduled release of the final plan, the recent backroom maneuvering will become more public. But those actions could soon be overtaken by the possible referendum and court review.

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