Inland California to lose clout in congress

By Jessica Philipps

WASHINGTON • California will lose a measure of clout in Congress after November’s election no matter which party best exploits the state’s freshly redistricted regions and election rules.

Six California representatives — with a combined 133 years of seniority — have already announced their retirement. Another nine incumbents are regarded as vulnerable.

That means California’s congressional delegation, the nation’s largest, is likely to experience the biggest turnover in at least two decades.

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, will be retiring this year. Victorville is currently split in half, represented by Lewis and Howard “Buck’’ McKeon. The entire city will be within the newly refigured 8th Congressional District, with only one Democratic candidate and five Republicans so far in that race.

With such a large number of competitive seats, California will play a critical role in determining whether Republicans retain their majority in the House.

Across the country, strategists have set their eyes on the Golden State and each party asserts it is well positioned to pick up seats.

“California is particularly ripe for the picking,” said Professor Eric Ostermeier, author of the Politics Smart Blog at the University of Minnesota.

It also means that some districts accustomed to powerful lawmakers will now be represented by novices.

Lewis, who was first elected in 1978, is a senior member and former chair of the House’s Appropriations Committee, where all spending bills originate. All six of the retiring lawmakers hold senior committee positions earned through their years in Congress.

“San Bernardino and the Inland Empire have not only benefited from their service but their length of service,” said Republican strategist Jim Brulte, the former minority leader of the California Senate. “So when they leave this will be a huge gap. You cannot overestimate the loss that this region will take when they leave office.”

California’s delegation has traditionally been stable. Over the past five elections, California has averaged less than three new members per election. This is also reflected on the national level, where roughly nine out of 10 House members are returning incumbents.

The state’s new political landscape is in large part due to new boundaries drawn after the 2010 census. For the first time in California history, lines were drawn by a citizen’s commission which conducted the process under explicit orders to ignore traditional political considerations such as lines that might give one party advantage over the other, or those that keep two incumbents from living in the same district.

The committee chopped up the districts so extensively that it left many representatives with new constituents and lingering uncertainty about their reelection. For instance, Lewis’ 41st Congressional District, which reached from the Inland Empire to the Arizona border, was combined with the 25th district and now includes a 450-mile stretch along the Nevada border.

“Redistricting is forcing people to play musical chairs, so you’ll find experienced congressmen pitted against each other — incumbent versus incumbent — and then there’s the normal churning of term limits which leads others to relocate into new districts to find open seats,’’ said Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside.

California voters also did away with party primaries after the last election, requiring all candidates to run in a single primary with the top two vote-getters facing off in November, even if they are members of the same party.

The new rules have effectively introduced a more attractive battlefield for hopefuls to challenge incumbents and have pushed leading lawmakers toward retirement.

Other factors, such as voters’ contempt for Washington, may have prompted the retirements or given incumbents a difficult time holding on to their once-safe seats. Congress’ approval rating is at a record low with only one in eight Americans saying they are happy with its performance.

If Democrats regain control of the House, some California members will be vaulted into prominent positions. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, would likely be re-elected Speaker, and several other Democrats would regain control of key committees.

“We benefit from the collective strength of the Congress, but we’re taking a couple of gut shots with the loss of senior representatives,’’ Brulte said.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Ventura County, who is retiring after 25 years, said voters want fresh faces in Congress though it might have been better if the number of departures didn’t come all at once.

“This was the natural time because the lines were changing,” Gallegly said. “If you believe you have to stay there until the work is done, you’ll be there forever.”

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