New Californians in Congress reduce state’s clout

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.

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

“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.

Those departing this year include Republican Wally Heger, R-Chico, who has served 13 terms in Congress.

All six of the retiring lawmakers hold senior committee positions earned through their years in Congress.

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 ten 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 re-election.

“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.

Congressional handicapper Charlie Cook has 13 California seats marked as competitive this election year, including four he calls “tossups.” All four are currently held by Republicans.

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.

The California News Service is a journalism project of the University of California Washington Center and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Email the California News Service at cns@ucdc.edu.

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