SCOTUS Takes Up Redistricting Case: Downside for CA GOP Could Be Huge

SCOTUS Takes Up Redistricting Case: Downside for CA GOP Could Be Huge

Congressman Ed Royce was first elected in 1992 in one of California’s most conservative House seats. Twenty-two years later, the affable and influential Royce, now Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, still represents a reliably GOP House seat, but the district has shifted north to include a lot of Los Angeles County (and some of San Bernardino County), and it abuts a lot of solid blue territory. 

If the California legislature, which is overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats, could suddenly redraw Congressional lines, it wouldn’t be very hard to “draw” enough Democrats into Royce’s seat to ensure he’d have to move seats or lose re-election. 

This scenario may seem far-fetched, given voter approval in 2010 of Proposition 20, which put the decennial redrawing of California’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — currently 53 of them — into the hands of an independent redistricting commission. While I am dubious about whether that commission process resulted in a fair drawing of the lines, it certainly was a process that shifted the power from away from the legislature.

Interestingly, in neighboring Arizona, voters there also passed an amendment to their state constitution shifting control of redistricting from their state legislature to an independent commission. In that state, it is the GOP who controls the legislature and who lost the power to draw the lines. And when the measure passed, the Arizona legislature filed suit in federal court, asserting that the change in their state constitution was in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Last week the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the Arizona legislature’s case, the crux is which rests on this actual wording in the U.S. Constitution — “The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature thereof.”

In plain words, it seems clear that the Constitution gives certain powers not to the voters in a state, but to the state legislature. That said, the lower appellate court, in a split ruling, upheld the Arizona Constitutional Amendment.

If the Supreme Court does side with the Arizona legislature in this case, and the ruling gets applied here in California, turning control of redistricting back to the state legislature for drawing congressional lines, the already relatively small 15-member Republican congressional delegation could shrink even more. While we typically see redistricting take place right after the decennial census, there is nothing that would keep the California legislature, after a court decision that restores their right to redraw lines, from doing it right away.

It would be relatively easy to move district lines around and pull enough Republicans out of the current districts of Congressmen Jeff Denham, David Valadeo, and even Ed Royce to flip those seats blue. In addition, the battle between State Senator Steve Knight and former State Senator Tony Strickland to succeed Buck McKeon could put one of them in Congress for just one term, as that district could easily be redrawn to be a safe Democrat one. And five seats where Republicans are considered to have a fighting shot to take out incumbent Democrats Scott Peters, Raul Ruiz, Ami Beri, Julia Brownley, and maybe even John Garamendi could, with minor adjustments, be forever out of reach of the Republican Party.

Yes, you could see a California delegation so lopsided that it has 42 Democrats and just 11 Republicans.

One potential mitigating factor for the California GOP — if they are able to pick up some legislative seats in the November election this year. Pushing their way out of “super-minority” status is tantalizingly within the reach for the Grand Ol’ Party. They have several districts in play in the State Assembly, but need a net pickup of two seats. And on the State Senate side, as long as popular Republican rancher Andy Vidak, who was elected in a special election last year in a district that has a nearly 20 point registration advantage for Democrats, can hold his own (which looks likely right now), GOP efforts to claw back to being able to block a two-thirds Democratic majority rest on one key Orange County race, which I would say slightly favors the GOP. It takes a majority vote to pass redistricting maps out of each legislative chamber, and then off to the Governor, most likely Jerry Brown.

That said, there is a rich tradition in the redistricting process of individual legislators putting their personal interests over their party. Drawing a safe or even competitive House seat for a stray Republican, to pick up their vote, would be par for the course. And of course one cannot presume that Democrats will be completely unified — though moving a bunch of Congressional seats into the solid-D column would be a big priority for Nancy Pelosi and national Democrats.

There will be many people watching the Supremes as they take arguments and issue an opinion in the case. But perhaps no one more intently than Ed Royce.


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