WASHINGTON — Democrats hoping to regain the majority in the House in 2012 might get a strong head start in California, where voters have handed the authority for drawing political boundaries to an independent citizens' commission.
Analysts studying the panel's work are predicting that three to five seats now in Republican hands will move into the Democratic camp in next year's general election. Such a swing could give Democrats an edge toward the magic number 24 — the number of GOP-held seats they'll need to win if they are to regain the House majority.
Republicans account for roughly 31 percent of California's voters and 36 percent of its congressional delegation — at 53 members, the nation's largest. Democrats comprise 44 percent of the state's voters and 62 percent of its congressional delegation. One vacancy in a Democratic-leaning district will be filled after a special election in July.
About 1 out of every 5 California voters declines to declare a party preference.
Matt Rexroad, a Republican redistricting consultant from Sacramento, Calif., said some of the 19 GOP lawmakers in the state's congressional delegation probably should have lost their seats a decade ago because of California's dwindling percentage of Republican voters. But after the 2000 Census, the Democratic-controlled Legislature drew new congressional boundaries that were intended to protect incumbents from both parties.
Now, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission is drawing those lines, and incumbency is not a factor.
California voters decided to create the commission in 2008, taking the authority away from the Legislature after heavy gerrymandering led to political stagnation and a lack of competition in state legislative and congressional races.
Such a commission is rare, with its 14 members selected in a lottery-style process overseen by the state auditor. Most states' political maps are drawn by the Legislature or commissions appointed by the parties or governors. Only seven states give first and final authority for congressional line drawing to a commission, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They are Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington.
But California's effort to minimize the politics in redistricting goes beyond what others have put into practice and will be closely watched by legislatures across the country, said Tim Storey, a senior fellow with the conference.
The California redistricting commission is charged with grouping communities by geography, ethnicity and economic interests, and is not supposed to consider incumbency or party registration figures.
Significant changes could take place before the commission adopts the final maps Aug. 15. But for now, the political future looks most grim for Reps. David Dreier and Gary Miller, two longtime Republican lawmakers who represent districts in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles.
"They were in jeopardy 10 years ago, and the demographic shifts have made it even more difficult for them to get re-elected," Rexroad said.
Dreier's redrawn district would contain a majority of Latino voters and is heavily Democratic, while Miller resides in a district that also serves as the home turf for Democratic Rep. Judy Chu and is heavily Asian and Democratic. They will have two options if they want to return to Congress: Take on a Democratic foe on unfriendly turf or shop for a new congressional district. Members of Congress do not have to live in the districts they represent.
Dreier and Miller declined to comment for this story.
Rexroad and Democratic analyst Paul Mitchell said Southern California Republicans Brian Bilbray and Elton Gallegly also face difficult re-election prospects.
Under the current map, Bilbray lives in the same district as Republican Rep. Darrell Issa. He can run against Issa in the GOP primary or run in a more Democratic district to the south that includes many of the San Diego suburbs he represented during his first stint in Congress and as a county supervisor. He said he would pursue the latter option.
"It's a little easier for me because I'm going back to communities I represented for 16 years. In fact, I'm going back to the town I was born in," Bilbray said, referring to Coronado.
Under the commission's proposed maps, Gallegly was placed in the same district as Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon. He can run against McKeon or try to win an adjacent district that is decidedly more Democratic and Latino.
Gallegly said he didn't understand the logic behind some of the commission's moves in determining which communities landed in which districts.
"As bad as the process has been in the past, at least the politicians that were drawing the lines had to stand up and be accountable for them. At this point, the commissioners don't," Gallegly said.
Gabino Aguirre, a Democratic member of the commission, said the redistricting of 2000 virtually guaranteed certain incumbents and parties control of the districts. Only one congressional seat changed parties over the following decade, he said.
"When you're guaranteeing re-election because of a gerrymander, I don't see how you can be held accountable for anything you do," Aguirre said.
Commissioners expect their final congressional and state legislative maps will result in legal challenges — and those are likely to be bipartisan.
"The accountability will come through the courts," Aguirre said.
Some activist groups already are questioning the commission's draft plan because they say it dilutes representation for Latinos, the fastest-growing segment of California's population and electorate. Latinos typically have voted Democratic.
The new political boundaries also will force some Democratic incumbents into the same districts and will endanger others. That includes Rep. Loretta Sanchez, whose victory over a Republican incumbent in conservative Orange County 15 years ago helped signal the rise of Latino political power. Her office did not return phone calls seeking comment.
But most of the anxiety since the commission released its draft plan has been on the Republican side.
GOP Rep. Dan Lungren also would have a district that becomes more Democratic. He said he believes the draft map issued by the commission would exaggerate the strength of Democrats in California.
Lungren's current district near Sacramento has been trending more bipartisan in recent years, leading to tighter re-election campaigns.
Rep. Devin Nunes said he wasn't buying predictions that Republicans in California stand to lose several seats in the 2012 elections.
"I like our chances to keep our seats," he said. "Is there a chance we could lose some? Yes ... I think two would be a disaster for us."
GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority whip, said it's premature to count any Republican lawmakers out. He said he looks forward to the competition redistricting is expected to bring.
"If you compete and you run the right message, it won't be locked in for any incumbent, which I think is always a positive," he said.
Shawn Steel, former chairman of the California Republican Party, said he was prepared to challenge the commission's maps by seeking a ballot referendum if it appears Republicans were treated unfairly during redistricting.
Under such a challenge, about 800,000 signatures from registered voters would be needed to qualify a proposition asking California voters to accept or reject the commission's proposal. Voters rejected a ballot attempt last year to abolish the commission.
Steel said he is starting to lay the groundwork for a referendum because people would have to act quickly if they disagree with the commission's work. He also wants to send a signal to the commission.
"If they decide to go renegade and get greedy, their lines are going to be challenged," he said.
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