State’s grip in Congress could shift

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.

Democrat Dennis Cardoza and five other California representatives – with a combined 133 years of seniority – have already announced their retirement. Another nine incumbents, including Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, 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.

Cardoza has represented part of Stockton and southern San Joaquin County since 2003. However the new boundaries put Cardoza in a district that no longer includes the county, instead stretching as far south as Fresno into neighborhoods now represented by Democrat Jim Costa. Rather than take on new constituents and run against a fellow Democrat, Cardoza chose to retire.

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 Eric Ostermeier, author of the “Politics Smart Blog” and a professor at the University of Minnesota.

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

Those departing from Congress this year include Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-San Bernardino, who was first elected in 1978 and is a senior member and former chairman of the House’s Appropriations Committee, where spending bills originate.

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, former minority leader of the state Senate.

California’s delegation has traditionally been stable. Over the past five elections, California has averaged less than three new members per election. This also is 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 an 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.

For instance, McNerney’s 11th Congressional District, which previously wrapped around Stockton and reached from Lodi to Gilroy, was chopped up and is now part of four separate districts.

McNerney’s new district – which includes all of Stockton – is more Democratic and should be easier for him to win re-election.

“Redistricting is forcing people to play musical chairs, so you’ll find experienced congressmen pitted against each other – incumbent vs. 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 state seats marked as competitive this election year, including four that he calls “toss-ups.” All four are held by Republicans.

“It’s not going to be as bad of year for Democrats,” Bowler said. “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.

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

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