WASHINGTON (AP) — Political strategists mapping potential gains in the House next month are circling, of all places, California.
For decades, the state was largely an afterthought in the fight for control of the House. The state’s incumbents were impervious to a challenge because congressional boundaries were drawn to protect them, just as they are in most states.
In recent years, California has ditched the partisan gerrymandering that predominates in most of the country and has gone a different direction. Voters approved creation of an independent citizens redistricting commission to draw state legislative and congressional districts without regard to incumbency.
Commissioners are selected in a random, lottery-style drawing, and their work has helped create at least six congressional races this year that are considered winnable for either political party in the Nov. 3 general election. A handful of other races are on the cusp of being competitive.
Democrats are defending four freshmen who rode President Barack Obama’s coattails to victory in 2012. Republicans are defending one freshman and also have to defend an open seat in Southern California created by the retirement of Rep. Gary Miller. Nationally, Democrats need to net 17 seats to gain control of the House, a goal most analysts believe the party is unlikely to meet.
Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called California a “center of gravity” for the two major political parties. With 53 seats, it has by far the largest congressional delegation of any state.
“I think California represents the strongest array of offense and defense in the entire country,” Israel said in describing how Democrats are approaching the state’s congressional races.
Democratic candidates appear to have more hurdles to overcome than Republicans this election.
In California, Obama suffers from the worst approval ratings of his presidency and voters appear disengaged. Only a fourth of registered voters participated in the June 3 primary, the lowest turnout for a regular primary election in California history.
At the same time, Gov. Jerry Brown is coasting to re-election over a little known and underfunded GOP challenger, meaning there is little to energize Democratic voters.
The Democratic expectations this year are a far cry from those of 2012, when California gave Democrats four of the eight pick-ups they netted in the House.
“The turnout model is different. The political environment is wildly different,” said Jason Roe, a Republican strategist based in San Diego. “... We’re poised, and it just comes down to: Do we have enough money to make the sale?”
Then again, this is California. Republican support has fallen dramatically over the years and GOP candidates have consistently failed to take advantage of favorable national trends.
Republicans account for just 28 percent of the state’s electorate, slightly ahead of the 23 percent registered as independents and far behind registered Democrats, who account for 43 percent.
In 2010, the GOP reclaimed control of the House and won six U.S. Senate seats, but that wave never made it to California. Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, predicted a change this year.
“I’m pretty bullish as we stand here today that we can pick up several seats,” he said. “... In some of these cases, the Democrats don’t really have much to point to about what they’ve done, and the president is a pretty heavy anchor around their neck.”
Israel acknowledged that voter turnout will present a challenge for Democrats, but the party planned for that by adding staff and fine-tuning its voter ID and turnout programs.
“We prepared on Day 1 with the most sophisticated, California-based field program in our history,” he said.
In 2012, the vast majority of the state’s swing districts were won by Democrats. But now those incumbents — Ami Bera in a Sacramento-area district, Julia Brownley in Ventura County, Raul Ruiz in Riverside County and Scott Peters in San Diego — face difficult re-election contests.
On the Republican side, it’s freshman Rep. David Valadao in a tough fight. He serves a largely rural district in which Democrats have a 14-percentage point voter registration edge.
California also has a couple of same-party races that will spice up election night as longtime players on the California political scene face challenges from within.
Rep. Mike Honda faces fellow Democrat Ro Khanna, a former trade official in the Obama administration, in a Silicon Valley district. Rep. Tom McClintock competes against fellow Republican Art Moore, an Iraq War veteran, in a district that spans a large swath of northern and central California, including Sierra foothill communities as far south as Yosemite.
The Democratic freshmen considered most vulnerable to defeat were the leading vote-getters in each of their June primary victories, but in every instance they faced multiple Republican candidates who splintered the vote. Now, the majority of those opposition votes will consolidate around a single Republican. For example, Peters gained about 42 percent of the vote to win the June primary. His three Republican opponents combined for 58 percent.
To survive, the Democrats are trying to create distance between themselves and anything to do with Washington. They’ve also voted occasionally with Republicans to demonstrate a willingness to take on their own party.
For example, the four Democratic freshmen considered most vulnerable this election cycle all supported legislation to delay a critical feature of the president’s health care law, when large employers must offer their workers a health insurance plan.