California may be an afterthought in this year’s presidential race because it’s safely in Barack Obama’s column (the Democratic presidential ticket leads the GOP ticket by 14 points in the latest PPIC poll.) But it’s smack in the heat of the uphill battle being waged by national Democrats to take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Flashback to 2001, when — for the last time — the California State Legislature was charged with drawing new legislative and congressional district lines following the 2000 census which gave the state’s 52-member congressional delegation one more seat.
With GOP control of the U.S. House of Representatives on the line in the 2002 midterm elections and California’s redistricting in the hands of a Democratic governor and Democratic legislative majorities, a deal was cut in Sacramento (with strong encouragement from the George W. Bush White House).
Legislative Republicans signed off on a redistricting plan that basically — and safely — entrenched the GOP as the minority party in both houses of the California Legislature. They did it to protect GOP congressional incumbents from the threat of slicing and dicing of Republican districts by Democratic line-drawers.
This time, thanks to voter approval of two reform initiatives, line-drawing was in the hands of the independent California Citizens Redistricting Commission. And the commission actually went so far as to set up incumbent-versus-incumbent smack-downs in a few congressional districts.
So the number of "competitive" seats — though not necessarily competitive races — shot up from next to zero to roughly a dozen, or about 23 percent of the nation’s largest delegation. (The National Journal has identified the Golden State as the state with the largest number of "competitive districts.")
A shift of 25 seats from R to D is necessary to ensure a Democratic majority in the House.
California has given Democrats hope that new lines and increasingly favorable demographics will lead to what the GOP worked to prevent in 2001 — a dramatic shift in the Democrats’ favor within the state’s congressional delegation. So now, national Democrats have begun to look at the Golden State as a possible key to taking back the House.
The House Majority PAC (a national Democratic Super PAC targeted at congressional contests) has been active in at least six hot races in California.
And both the Democratic and Republican Congressional Campaign Committees are also engaging in Golden State battles.
National Democrats suffered an early setback last June in California’s "top-two" primary, when their preferred candidate in the 31st Congressional District in San Bernardino County failed to make the run-off. That left two Republicans to vie for the Democratic-leaning seat.
But Democrats think that the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee could more than make up for that — in a moderate-to-liberal state in which 54 percent of respondents to an August Field Poll support the Obama health care law and only 37 percent do not support it.
According to DCCC Chair Steve Israel (D-NY), "Paul Ryan has become a down-ticket disaster."
We’ll find out in November how this all plays out. But it’s nice to know that, in this election cycle, attention will be paid to California for something other than its traditional role as the ATM of American politics.