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California’s new congressional maps produce a scrambled playing field for 2022

<i>Drew Angerer/Getty Images</i><br/>Democratic Rep. Karen Bass
Drew Angerer
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Democratic Rep. Karen Bass

By Maeve Reston, CNN

The heavily partisan process of redrawing congressional districts ahead of the 2022 elections has resulted in a drop in competitive seats nationwide as the parties in power draw lines to protect their incumbents. But California will stand as a notable exception as the final maps drawn by an independent commission are expected to yield at least seven — and as many as 10 — competitive seats as well as a wild scramble for current House members to figure out what districts they will run in.

CNN spoke to more than a dozen political strategists, redistricting experts and campaign aides from both parties as California’s congressional maps were being revised and refined over the past few weeks to gather their perspectives on how the state’s most competitive races are shaping up.

The Golden State’s redistricting commission approved final maps late Monday night, drawing a total of 52 districts — one fewer than in the past because of slower population growth. Overall the map still favors Democrats, who hold 42 of the state’s current congressional seats, compared to 11 held by Republicans.

But Republicans are bullish about their prospects for pickups in 2022 because of the difficult political climate Democrats are facing. In 2020, Republicans flipped four of the state’s congressional districts, including the special election win of GOP Rep. Mike Garcia in the 25th District, which covers portions of northern Los Angeles County and is anchored by Santa Clarita.

Republican strategist and redistricting expert Matt Rexroad said his assumption is that “2022 is going to be a very good year for Republicans overall,” but he noted the GOP may have a more uphill struggle with the new maps in the cycles that follow. “There’s several seats in here that I think are seats that Republicans might even be favored in in 2022, but I don’t know how that would look in, like 2028, as they continue to change,” he said.

California’s independent commission largely ignored existing congressional lines and the home addresses of the state’s politicians, which more partisan processes have been criticized for taking into account, as they created the new maps. After Monday night’s initial vote, the commission plans to leave the maps untouched for several days for public review, before giving final approval to the new districts as soon as December 26 and turning the maps over to the secretary of state.

But California’s battlefield for the 2022 elections is still taking shape, with a complex game of musical chairs expected over the next few weeks. Recent iterations of the maps placed as many as three incumbents in the same district and some of them may leapfrog into different districts if it improves their odds of winning. Members of Congress are not required to reside in the districts where they run, although running outside of their home districts sometimes opens candidates up to attacks on the campaign trail.

Members of California’s delegation account for four of the 23 retirements in the House Democratic Caucus so far, opening up some opportunities for newcomers. Rep. Karen Bass is leaving Congress to run for Los Angeles mayor. Other members heading for the exits include Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard, who represents portions of south and east Los Angeles; Alan Lowenthal who represents Long Beach; and Jackie Speier, who represents southern San Francisco and San Mateo County.

Sam Oh, a Republican strategist who is the general consultant for Orange County GOP Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel — two members who won some of the toughest 2020 congressional races in California, predicted that there would be “a lot of campaign calls over the holidays to discuss every possible option” on both the Republican or Democratic sides.

“Each campaign will do their due diligence to ensure that whatever seat they run for gives them the best long-term viability,” Oh said. “They’ll be polling, looking at demographic trends and having very interesting team discussions in the next couple of weeks here as people start announcing for seats.”

A competitive field in Orange County

California’s redistricting commissioners made major changes to the highly competitive areas of Orange County that will affect the fortunes of Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, as well as Steel, Kim and the Democratic contenders who had been lining up to challenge them.

Commissioners essentially drew Porter, Steel and former Rep. Harley Rouda — the Democrat vying for a rematch with Steel — into the same seat, creating a long coastal district that encompasses Seal Beach and Huntington Beach to the north, continuing south through Costa Mesa and Newport Beach to an area south of Laguna Beach, while folding in much of the Democratic-leaning city of Irvine, where Porter lives.

Porter intends to run in that new 47th District and Democratic strategists view it as a solid opportunity for her given her popularity and huge war chest, and the fact that President Joe Biden won by double digits in that area.

But in an unusually pointed statement Wednesday, Rouda said that the new coastal district includes 70% of the area that he represented while serving in Congress between 2018 and 2020 (before he was defeated by Steel). He added that he “learned via Twitter that Representative Porter has left the district that includes 70% of her constituents, and is now running in my coastal district.”

Rouda said he believes he is the “most electable Democrat” in that new district but said that he would spend the holidays with his family and “evaluate all the options laid before us.”

Porter campaign spokesperson Jordan Wong said she would be running in that district because it “includes her home city of Irvine, where she lives, and where her three children attend public school.” But Wong hinted at challenges ahead, noting that “roughly two-thirds of voters in the 47th District have not previously been represented by Congresswoman Porter” and said “she looks forward to introducing herself to these voters and running a positive and spirited campaign, as she did to win close races in 2018 and 2020.”

Rexroad cautioned that no one should count out Republicans in that new district, noting that his analysis shows former Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox won just under 49% of the vote in that area in 2018 and that GOP candidates often overperformed former President Donald Trump in Orange County.

Though Steel, a first-generation American who immigrated from South Korea as a young adult, lives in that coastal district, she announced Wednesday that she would run in a new Orange County district just to the north that looks more favorable to Republicans. That newly created 45th District encompasses much of Little Saigon, an area with a high concentration of Vietnamese voters where Steel campaigned heavily and did well in 2020.

Several GOP strategists noted that Steel has built strong relationships with the diverse Asian communities in areas like Westminster and Garden Grove that are part of that new district and she has deep roots beyond her current district, because of her service on the California State Board of Equalization and as a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Nearly 37% of the eligible voters in that district are Asian — which is on the higher side for southern California — creating a diverse battlefield for both parties.

“Californians today are facing so many challenges — from high taxes to concerns over affordability, crime, and the quality of education our children receive,” Steel said in a statement Wednesday. “Although the district lines have changed, my mission has not. I have spent my entire career as a public servant fighting to protect California taxpayers, to lower crime rates, and to hold government accountable when it fails the people, and I will continue to do that work.”

Democrat Jay Chen, a small business owner and lieutenant commander in the US Naval Reserves who is one of the party’s top recruits, had announced that he would challenge Kim. But he plans to run in the new 45th District, creating a highly competitive matchup with Steel.

Kim’s current 39th District — which had encompassed pieces of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties — was also sliced and diced under the new lines. She announced Wednesday that she will run in a new, geographically larger inland Orange County district to the south and east, which looks as though it will be far more favorable to Republicans. That new 40th District includes communities that Kim currently represents like Yorba Linda and Chino Hills as well as a large swath of territory in Porter’s current district, including parts of Orange and Tustin, continuing farther south through Laguna Hills, Mission Viejo and Rancho Margarita.

“From day one, I have been committed to serving Southern California and that commitment does not change with updated district lines. The out-of-touch policies we see from Nancy Pelosi and Washington politicians are hurting our communities and I’ll continue to fight to combat inflation, lower taxes on Californians, and bolster our national security,” Kim said in a statement.

A boost to Latino power in the Central Valley

Three of the most competitive seats in the Central Valley have been those held by Democratic Rep. Josh Harder and Republican Reps. David Valadao and Devin Nunes, who announced earlier this month that he is leaving Congress to head up Trump’s social media venture. Under the new lines, territory that had been held by both Nunes and Democratic Rep. Jim Costa ended up in the new 21st District, which is more Democratic than Nunes’ current seat. Costa announced Tuesday that he will run in that new seat.

The commission made some dramatic changes to Harder’s seat, essentially splitting it in two with a dividing line in and around the population center of Modesto, where Harder went to high school. But later in the process, the commission spent much of its time trying to boost the percentages of eligible Latino voters in three of the Central Valley districts to increase Latino influence in future elections in keeping with the Voting Rights Act.

During that process, Harder’s fortunes improved as greater portions of Modesto were added back in to his district, which is the new 13th District. The competitive seat now runs farther south through the Central Valley, sweeping up large portions of Costa’s district, which is making it unclear how they will sort out their home turf. Rexroad noted that there may also be an opportunity for the GOP in a newly created 9th District just to the north, which encompasses Stockton and San Joaquin county.

Rob Pyers, research director with the California Target Book, a comprehensive guide to the state’s political data, noted that the commission essentially moved many Republican voters in the Central Valley into the current district of House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy as they were boosting the influence of Latino voters in other districts, creating more difficult contests for some of McCarthy’s neighboring Republicans in 2022.

The consolidation of GOP areas made Valadao’s district more competitive by a couple of points, Pyers said, by dismembering his Kings County home territory — where his family farms alfalfa, almonds corn and wheat — while splitting up the Republican vote in a number of towns and cities.

“The seats objectively get worse for Republicans in the Central Valley versus 2020, but the national environment” — which favors the GOP — “could counteract that,” Pyers said.

Valadao, who lost his perennial swing seat to Democrat TJ Cox in 2018 and then won it back last year — will face a tougher race in 2022, both because of the way the commission has drawn the new lines and because he is facing a strong challenge from Democrat Rudy Salas, a California assemblyman and former member of the Bakersfield City Council, as well as from several others.

Redistricting commissioners shifted Valadao’s district farther south from an area near Hanford — where he was born and raised — so that his new district encompasses less of the areas around Fresno and more of the bluer areas around Bakersfield. Allies of Salas hope that shift will give the Democratic challenger an edge since he is best known in the Bakersfield area.

But Robert Jones, a Republican strategist who advises Valadao, said the congressman is not daunted by the challenge even if the district ends up looking more Democratic. He noted that Valadao won in 2020 in a district Biden won by about 10 points and has historically done better with Latino voters than other GOP candidates.

“The Hispanic communities are going to be put together in districts that are going to be really competitive (with voters) really evaluating candidates outside of party labels,” Jones said. “We win a good share of votes, and have cross-over votes, all over the district. There’s no part of the district that we don’t compete in, and if it goes a little bit in one direction or another from the current lines, I think we’re going to be competitive.”

Swing seats in northern Los Angeles and San Diego counties

The redistricting commission also made some major changes to the Republican seat held by Garcia, a Santa Clarita native and former Navy fighter pilot. Garcia managed to flip California’s current 25th District — which Republicans had lost in 2018 — back to the GOP in a 2020 special election after Democrat Katie Hill resigned from Congress amid controversy. Trump endorsed Garcia in that race.

In 2022, Garcia is facing a rematch with Democrat Christy Smith, as well as a challenge from Democratic newcomer Quaye Quartey, a former Navy intelligence officer, among others. Smith, a former member of the state assembly, only lost to Garcia by 333 votes in the 2020 general election, underscoring the competitiveness of the area.

Garcia faces some challenges under the new lines in what will now be the 27th District. The commission has removed conservative portions of the Simi Valley from his district and added bluer areas of the San Fernando Valley. Despite Garcia’s conservative voting record, however, he has not shied away from running in areas that have typically been challenging for Republicans and political observers on both sides believe the seat will remain competitive.

The most competitive seat in San Diego county will be the coastal district of Democratic Rep. Mike Levin, who also represents part of the southern Orange County coast. Though there were some territory swaps, the redistricting commission appears to have essentially maintained the status quo in San Diego County, preserving two Democratic seats in the city of San Diego and along the San Diego coast that are held by Democratic Reps. Sara Jacobs and Scott Peters, although their residences were drawn into the same district).

Republican Rep. Darrell Issa’s seat covering parts of East County, San Diego had looked more competitive at various points during the process, but now looks fairly safe for the GOP.

A win for voters who sought competition

Paul Mitchell, a redistricting expert with the Sacramento-based firm Redistricting Partners, said for all the complaints that have emerged with California’s tedious process — and the line-drawing that unfolded over hundreds over hours on videoconference — the state’s voters will at least have confidence that partisanship did not play a central role.

When they passed two ballot measures to create the independent commission in 2008 and 2010, voters “didn’t want politicians drawing districts to advantage political parties and incumbents, and they’ve completely won in that regard,” Mitchell said. “None of this reflects where politicians want these lines to be drawn. None of this reflects where the political parties want these lines to be drawn.”

“People might not like where their city is drawn with another city, or they might not like the political implications of the lines,” he added. “But they can’t say that they don’t know why a line was drawn where it was, because it’s all done on video.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.

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