Redistricting Journal: Dems could pick up seats in California

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Mark Gersh is president of NCEC Services Inc., and a CBS News Consultant. Redistricting Journal is a regular Hotsheet series on redistricting battles across the country.

Looking for heated congressional battles next year? Time to start California Dreamin'.

Recently, competition has been missing in California congressional elections: over the past five cycles, only one congressional district has changed partisan allegiance - California 11 in 2006 moved from Republican to Democrat - out of 265 contests. But that's about to change.

Due to an historic redistricting plan finalized by the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, an early estimate for 2012 is that at least 15 of the 53 districts may change partisan affiliation, based on our analysis of the demographic and partisan composition of the proposed districts, including two districts almost certain to add Democrats and lose Republicans. (You can view the new maps here.)

Remember, this is one of a handful of states in the U.S. where partisan lawmakers don't exclusively draw the district lines. As a result, we see less "incumbent protection" or one-party dominance in the results than we might elsewhere.

Overall in California now, 8 Republican districts are in jeopardy, reflecting demographic changes - major population growth among Hispanics and Asian Americans, and the dilution of several safe Democratic and Republican districts. Nevertheless, substantial Democratic gains are far from a sure bet. Several long-time Democratic districts are now marginal, and that's not including potential showdowns in primary elections.

Because of the movement of district lines (as often happens in a lot of states after redistricting) current incumbents are geographically jostled, with lines shifting around them, and so they essentially have a choice of which newly-drawn district to run in.

As of now, it appears that Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman will square off in the newly constituted 30th district (in the LA area, the west San Fernando Valley) and Democrats Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson are perhaps headed for a primary battle in the 44th district (located in inner-city L.A., Watts and San Pedro) with the possibility that neither will survive the Democratic primary.

On the Republican side of the aisle, Reps. Elton Gallegly, Dan Lungren, David Dreier, Jerry Lewis and Gary Miller all have yet to decide where to run in 2012. The same is true for Democrats Joe Baca, Jim Costa and potentially a few other incumbents.

All this may impact the overall balance of power in the House nationally, too. Presently, Democrats enjoy a 34-19 advantage in the congressional delegation. To maintain a chance to regain control of the House in 2012, it is clear that Democrats must gain seats in California, and probably at least 3-4, due to shifts and possible losses elsewhere in the country. Predictions right now range from no partisan shift to as high as an eight seat gain for Democrats. Right now, I would bet that Democrats will gain a minimum of two seats and perhaps as many as five or six.

The 32nd and 35th districts in the Los Angeles area are the best bets for Democratic gains. Represented by Reps. David Dreier (old 26th district) and Gary Miller (old 42nd district), each district has a minority population of 75 percent or higher. President Obama won 64.7 percent in the new 32nd and 66.4 percent in the new 35th district. Democrats also seem poised to win the 41st district, bereft of an incumbent from either party and a 60.5 percent Obama district.

Conversely, Republicans will make a major effort to unseat Democratic incumbent Lois Capps in the new 24th district. They have recruited a strong challenger, Abel Maldonado, if he can survive the primary in this Santa Barbara based district. President Obama did win 58 percent of the vote here, but an average of other partisan elections points to a more evenly balanced district.

Republicans also feel good about their chances in the new 21st district (Central Valley, where Obama won only 52.8 percent of the vote, approximately nine percent below his state-wide percentage). It is unclear whether Democratic Rep. Jim Costa will run in this district, or the more favorable Central Valley 16th district.

Another district where the outcome remains in doubt is the newly constituted 31st district. It includes San Bernadino, Rancho Cucamonga and Redlands. Democratic Rep. Joe Baca could run here, or in a neighboring district. What seems fairly certain is that Republican Jerry Lewis, whose residence now lies in the 31st district, will run elsewhere, perhaps in the new 8th district.

Republican Rep. Dan Lungren, who narrowly avoided defeat in 2010, faces an even tougher battle in the new 7th, where Obama won 52.8 percent of the major party vote in this Sacramento based district. Lungren won by a narrow 53 -47 percent margin in 2010. Ludgren may decide a better option is a primary challenge to Republican Rep. Tom McClintock in the new 4th district, where John McCain amassed a 12 percent margin of victory in 2008.

Republicans who may seek reelection in tossup districts include Dreier or Gallegly in the new Los Angeles area-based 26th district, and Brian Bilbray in the new 52nd district (San Diego area). Other potentially marginal Republican districts include the new 10th (Denham) and 36th (Bono-Mack). At least initially, both Republican incumbents would be favored to win reelection.

On the Democratic side, incumbents John Garamendi (new 3rd district) and Loretta Sanchez (new 46th district) may face tough races, although they start off as favorites. Democrat Jerry McNerney actually faces a more receptive audience in the new 9th district, as opposed to the previous 11th district. Remember, McNerney is the only challenger to unseat a incumbent over the previous five California election cycles.

California already made some history of its own last year when, for the first time since 1862, it failed to gain one or more House seats following reapportionment. (California was granted statehood in 1850. Until the election of 1862, the state elected three at-large members of Congress.)

From 1862 to the present, California has gained at least one additional district, until the 2010 census confirmed what was palpable throughout the last decade: growth had slowed due to the faltering economy. California will retain 53 congressional districts. It is still the largest delegation in the nation's history. But now, major changes are coming to California as the era of safe districts comes to an end.

(A final note: This could still change somewhat. Several incumbents in both parties have not decided where to run, as the redistricting commission made significant changes in virtually every district. For that reason, this initial assessment of California congressional elections may be revised before the end of the calendar year. Note also that the above Obama percentages are derived from major party vote, used for estimating partisan balance, and not the total vote.)

More of Mark Gersh's redistricting coverage in Hotsheet:

Dems, GOP fighting to a draw
GOP could win big in North Carolina
Iowa races could be among 2012's most competitive
Indiana redistricting bolsters GOP prospects
Dems seek big gains after Illinois redistricting