Parties Draw Lines in California Sand

Posted June 18, 2012 at 6:05pm

California was once a muddled mess of candidates running in a year of redistricting, retirements and a new “jungle” primary process, but since that June 5 vote the electoral landscape has crystallized into 53 two-candidate races — with some featuring two from the same party.

Now, election experts at the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee largely agree on where the hottest competition will be for seats that could switch parties, though of course they have starkly different views of which party will come out victorious in November.

When the new district lines were completed last year, Democrats hoped to expand upon their 34-19 advantage in the delegation by as many as six seats. But the NRCC is bullish on its ability to keep that number to a minimum.

“Nancy Pelosi has made clear that any path to the majority for the Democrats starts in California, and we would contend that it certainly ends in California,” NRCC Deputy Political Director Brock McCleary said during a 35-minute conference call last week with California and Washington, D.C., reporters.

The NRCC sees 10 highly competitive districts and a playing field that is “perfectly aligned,” with both parties defending five seats. Republicans say they have three vulnerable incumbents — Reps. Dan Lungren, Jeff Denham and Brian Bilbray — and two competitive open seats to defend, the Ventura County-based 26th district and the Riverside-based 41st district.

The DCCC agrees with that list and includes Rep. Mary Bono Mack’s (R) 36th district on its list of competitive GOP districts.

“Even Speaker Boehner admits Republicans are in jeopardy in California after redistricting,” DCCC spokeswoman Amber Moon said, “facing a weak top of the ticket in California and forced to defend slashing Medicare to protect tax breaks for millionaires and Big Oil companies.”

The committees share a common view of the most competitive districts where Democrats are playing defense: The districts of Reps. John Garamendi, Jerry McNerney and Lois Capps, and open seats in the Long Beach-based 47th district and Central Valley-based 21st district.

Among the top races to watch, Lungren is again facing physician Ami Bera in a Sacramento-area district that was redrawn unfavorably for Lungren. But Lungren is a survivor and knows what he’s up against in the well-funded Bera.

Democrats were glad San Diego Port Commission Chairman Scott Peters emerged from the primary in the 52nd district and think he’ll be a solid challenge for Bilbray.

Elsewhere, Republicans like their matchup between Colusa County Supervisor Kim Vann and Garamendi, who they will point out has been running for office for nearly as long as Vann has been alive. Democrats feel better than they ever have about McNerney, whose district improved for him, despite his well-funded opponent, recent law school graduate Ricky Gill.

One undeniable fact is that a vulnerable Republican district in the Inland Empire was completely wiped off the map for Democrats in the primaries. Four opportunistic Democrats splintered their party’s vote, allowing vulnerable Rep. Gary Miller (R) and state Sen. Bob Dutton (R) to advance and assure a GOP victory in what had been seen as a top pickup opportunity for Democrats. But opportunity abounds for both parties, and Democrats have several more targets to pursue.

President Barack Obama won all 10 of the districts the parties agree are competitive, but McCleary argued that Obama vastly outspent McCain in the state in 2008 and that President George W. Bush performed much better than McCain in many of those districts. The only one of the competitive districts Obama didn’t carry is Bono Mack’s.

“The way these districts are drawn, they are set up as virtually 50-50 districts,” McCleary said. “Figuring out how you get beyond the party label — the vote that will naturally be there for you as a Republican or Democrat — how do you get above and beyond that? I think this is what ultimately ends up being the key to our success there, is we have this diverse set of recruits.”

While the primaries defined the playing field, the low turnout was deceptive and largely an unreliable predictor for what the general electorate will look like. GOP consultant Dave Gilliard said that it would be a mistake to read too much into primary results.

“In most of these districts, we will see over twice as many voters in November as we did in June,” Gilliard said.

Paul Mitchell, a Democratic consultant in the state and redistricting expert, said “the largest increase will be among Latino voters.” Mitchell said Latinos were disillusioned by Obama’s lack of movement on immigration issues, but his recent policy shift to allow some young illegal immigrants to stay in the country will be a boon for the party at the House level in California.

“When everyone else in the country saw the president’s immigration policy as important at the federal level, I saw it is as being an incredible stimulus to general election turnout among Latinos in California,” Mitchell said. “Huge for Democrats here.”

California again won’t be competitive at the presidential level, so the NRCC plans to set up call centers to make up for the lack of a strong get-out-the-vote effort from the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. With assistance from Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Republicans will have a call center for GOTV and voter ID efforts in each targeted district.

McCleary said the NRCC starts with an advantage thanks to its fortune in the 31st district and Democrats’ inability to get a strong candidate in the 21st district against state Assemblyman David Valadao (R). Rep. Jim Costa (D) opted to run in the 16th district, where he is favored to win, and a few stronger Democrats declined to run for the open seat left behind. Blong Xiong, a DCCC recruit, finished third in the primary to Valadao and John Hernandez (D), who starts out at a heavy financial disadvantage.

“I think they’ve actually got an uphill battle to get to even,” McCleary said. A Democratic pickup of four seats “is pie in the sky at this point.”