California’s clout at stake this election year

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.

What happens to Bakersfield’s representation promises to get very interesting.

On one hand, most of the city and large chunks of Kern County will likely continue to be represented by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and enjoy whatever clout that brings with it.

On the other, representation of parts of east Bakersfield, Arvin, Lamont and much of the west side of Kern County may switch from Democrat to Republican. A lot depends on who else jumps into the race for the newly created 21st Congressional District, which locally looks a lot like the 20th District currently represented by Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

The two current candidates are Assemblyman David Valadao, R-Hanford, and the far lesser known Fresno Democrat John Hernandez, CEO of the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. During redistricting, Costa’s Fresno home was drawn into a district north of Kern County and he’s running up there.

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.

Those departing from the House this year include Republican Jerry Lewis, R-San Bernardino, who was first elected in 1978 and is a senior member and former chair of the House Appropriations Committee, where all spending bills originate. Also retiring is Republican Elton Gallegly, R-Ventura County, who has spent 25 years in Congress and is vice chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The six retiring lawmakers all 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 fewer 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 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, McCarthy will no longer represent San Luis Obispo. His new district will include areas as far north as Fresno.

“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. Even a popular politician like California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein faces the lowest approval ratings of her career.

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.

“It’s not going to be as bad of a year for Democrats,” Bowler predicted. “The Republican tide of 2010 has ebbed a lot, especially due to the historically low approval rate of Congress.”
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.

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

“Having a member for California who is chairman of a committee is very important,” said Republican strategist Jim Brulte, the former minority leader of the California Senate.

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.

Gallegly 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. ”

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


  1. This is a great story

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