California vs. the Gerrymander: Why Republicans Are Quaking

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Damian Dovarganes / AP

American and Mexican flags fly at a car dealership in Santa Ana, Calif. A new redistricting effort is meant to reflect the state's demographic changes of the past decade

Redistricting. The word doesn't sound exciting. The dictionary doesn't spice it up too much either: "to divide anew into districts; specifically: to revise the legislative districts of." To the average person, this might be the "single least interesting word in the English language," says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "But if you're a politician, those lines are a matter of life and death."

And so it is in the U.S.'s most populous state, where efforts to redraw the political map may mean Republicans will face more peril than their counterparts in the next elections. Some analysts predict the changes will cost them seats in the U.S. House, which would help Democratic efforts to win back control of the body next year. They say Democrats may increase their majority in Sacramento as well.

A 14-member citizens' committee in charge of the effort has an Aug. 1 deadline to submit its final version of how California's new districts will look in the 2012 election. The independent committee, known as the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, comprises a wide range of people including business owners, professors and even a chiropractor. It's a new venture for the state, which took the task away from lawmakers after they used to draw lines that helped keep incumbents in power, gerrymandering bizarrely shaped district maps for political advantage. The committee's mission is to refashion district lines in a nonpartisan way that reflects the demographic changes the state has seen in the past decade, including an increase in Latino residents and a population shift inland from the coast.

Matt Rexroad, a Republican consultant in California who has run numerous campaigns, says a draft released last month by the commission suggests Republicans may lose as many as five seats in the U.S. House in 2012. Incumbents who had relatively safe districts may find themselves in areas with more Democrats and independents, especially because of the expansion of a Latino population that tends to oppose Republican candidates.

That may have an important impact on Washington, Rexroad says. "In California, because of the demographics of the state, it's highly likely that there will be fewer safe Republican seats in Congress. It's really a question of the magnitude of that number: whether it's one or two or five," says Rexroad, who is also a partner at political consulting firm Meridian Pacific. "A net swing of five is critical for the outcome of the speakership and tight votes on debt limits and all kinds of other things." This means that to have a chance, Republicans who find their seats threatened will need to run campaigns that target Latino, female and young voters more than they have in the past, Schnur says.

Still, Democrats shouldn't claim victory just yet, says Bruce Cain, director of the University of California Washington Center. There's no guarantee that the committee's final plan will be the same as their draft, especially after special interests, including Latino groups, blasted it for not giving Hispanics enough influence. "We really don't know what the final lines are because the commission is bouncing all over the place trying to satisfy angry groups that objected to the first set of lines," Cain says. (The commission's preliminary lines were released in June.) Democrats may also fail to gain from California's redistricting if the economy worsens and unemployment remains high, especially since their incumbents will also have to cater to new residents who don't know them as well, he says. "A lot of people have a lot of newly configured territory," says Cain, who helped the legislature redraw district lines in 1981. "In that first election after redistricting, incumbents are most vulnerable because they're not as well known."

What seems most certain is there will probably be more nail-biting races next year than the yawns we witnessed when lawmakers gerrymandered the districts in the past. That should make for a more exciting election season with candidates targeting more swing voters. "This forces politicians of both parties to be much more responsive to the voters," Schnur says. "And that can't help but to be a good thing."