Election 2012: On the trail of the incumbents

Never has a California election cycle pitted more incumbent politicians against each other than in the 2012 districts drafted by an independent commission. But after all the bloodletting, the musical chairs, the unprecedented confrontation and the new faces, will the final partisan makeup reflect a sea-change in California politics?

“It will definitely reflect the anti-incumbency mood,” said Paul Mitchell, a redistricting consultant and Democratic strategist, “rather than a competitive, long-term kind of sea change for California.”

The new districts, accompanied by state term limits, are prompting more challenges by sitting legislators against incumbent house members of the same party – once a rarity.

Of California’s 153 legislative and congressional incumbents up for election next year, well over a third – 64 – find themselves squeezed into districts against each other. In the House alone, nearly half of California’s congressional delegation share potential districts.  

 “There has never been a redistricting with so many incumbents in the same districts,” said Tony Quinn, a political historian, former GOP staffer and co-editor of the Target Book.  “My recollection of the master’s plans in ’73 and ’91 was that a few were put together, but not nearly as many as there are now.”

The draft maps released by the voter-approved California Citizens Redistricting Commission face a round of public hearings before they are adopted in August.

Some 27 Assembly members – fully a third of the 80-member house – face each other in 11 new districts. In one Los Angeles district alone, four members of the Assembly – including Speaker John Perez – are thrust into a single district. In Sacramento, three lawmakers have been tossed together to fight it out; a similar trifecta is shaping up in the South Bay area of Los Angeles.

But with the incumbent-on-incumbent landscape comes the open spaces, the 17 proposed Assembly districts that have no incumbents at all and may offer a haven to embattled lawmakers looking for a safer spot.

Of the 11 districts in which two or more incumbents reside, four represent contests in which candidates of rival parties square off. In the remaining seven districts, all of the incumbents are members of the same party – six Democratic and one Republican.

In the Senate, the story is similar: 12 incumbents – nine Democrats and three Republicans – have been collapsed into six districts.  

The lineup doesn’t mean each will be squaring off with the other. Some state incumbents are termed out, some are running for different jobs, at least eight state lawmakers have hinted or said outright that they are running for the House. Others eyeing congress, other offices and new districts include many of the six termed-out senators and 22 termed-out members of the Assembly.

One congressional incumbent – Democrat Bob Filner in San Diego – is running for mayor.

But even without direct showdowns, the changes have a dramatic impact. The friction and agitation leads to the movement of candidates hunting for new districts.

The new alignments also are prompting a pattern of what was once something of a political taboo: challenges by state lawmakers against sitting members of congress in their own party.

Several years ago, when Joe Nation challenged incumbent Rep. Lynn Woolsey for a North Bay district, Nation was criticized for taking on a sitting incumbent and fellow Democrat.
“He (Nation) ran against Woolsey and lost, and when he ran later for the Senate against (Mark) Leno, it was actually used against him that he had run against Woolsey,” Mitchell said.
The new redistricting “has given the green light to legislators to run for congress against incumbents, and that’s different.”

A high-profile contest is shaping up in L.A. between Democratic incumbents Howard Berman, who moved to Congress after losing a speakership battle in the Legislature, and Brad Sherman, a former state tax-board member. For Berman, redistricting risks are nothing new, having survived major challenges in the Legislature and courts. But while still influential, the storied “Berman-Waxman machine” is withering in a GOP-controlled House. As for Sherman, he has a respectable $3 million in the bank and appears ready for a fight.
But while Republicans control the House, a number of ranking California House members face problems in the new districts.

Rep. Dan Lungren, who represents the conservative 3rd Congressional District east of Sacramento, finds himself in a newly redrawn district with even Democratic-Republican registration and fewer whites. The new district contains about three-fourths of the old one and the change has made the once-safe district competitive. Lungren chairs the House Administration Committee.

Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, a San Gabriel Valley Republican, is in a worse situation. The new district boosts Democratic registration to 47 percent, drops GOP registration to 28 percent and more than doubles the Latino population to 47 percent from the current 19 percent. The changes make for a safe Democratic seat. Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, D-Baldwin Park, has already said he’ll seek the seat.

So after the smoke has cleared, will the Democrat-Republican mix change? In the Legislature, perhaps not much. But in congress, where the districts were wildly gerrymandered in 2001, the impact of the new redistricting may have a more profound impact. Some analysts believe Democrats may pick up three to five seats in California’s House delegation.

But in the Legislature, the impact may be less. There, the partisan makeup is crucial for Democrats, who lack two votes in each house to reach the two-thirds majorities required to approve a state budget.

“Right now, we just don’t know,” said Target Book publisher Allan Hoffenblum.

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