Will Redistricting Save California? Part 2

| Sun Jun. 12, 2011 11:37 AM EDT

More analysis of California's new redistricting map, which was drawn, for the first time, by an independent commission:

Between now and next year's elections, Republicans must scramble to reinvent themselves, recruit more moderate candidates and find common ground with more Californians if they are to be at all relevant in Golden State politics, according to independent experts and partisan analysts alike.

....The GOP sought to maintain its numbers in the last redistricting, in 2001, when lawmakers controlled the maps. Republicans cut a deal with Democrats to protect incumbents by cushioning both parties in safe seats across the state. No seats switched party in the next two elections.

....Redistricting protection over the years had emboldened the party's conservative wing....In 2009, for example, after a cluster of Republicans joined Democrats to pass temporary tax increases in Sacramento, two members lost their leadership posts, another retired in the face of a recall and another lost a bid for statewide office. But the new maps, which will be further refined before they are ratified in August, seem to have changed the calculus, especially for Republicans such as state Sen. Tom Berryhill of Modesto. The district he now represents was drawn into a majority Democratic area.

Berryhill is one of five senators who have bucked party leadership — and the majority of his GOP colleagues — this year to negotiate with Gov. Jerry Brown on a proposal to renew billions of dollars in expiring tax hikes. The new districts' potential makeup could provide a final push for Republicans and Democrats alike to agree on the taxes and pass a budget as they face the deadline for doing so Wednesday.

Two points. First: if this actually happens — and it's still a big if — it would be a monster success for the commission. It was the hope of its sponsors that it would primarily do two things: reduce the number of super-safe seats and give challengers a better opportunity to unseat incumbents, and in so doing, force both parties to move a bit to toward the center. For the past decade, California's districts have been among the most lopsidedly partisan in the nation, safely electing a steady stream of extremely liberal Democrats and extremely conservative Republicans. Moderates became practically an endangered species. It will be a big win for the state if this changes. (And, as the story notes, there are some additional mechanisms now in place that might also help this transformation along.)

Second: last week I wrote a post about a friend who said that the Sacramento lobbyists he worked with were pretty confident that Gov. Jerry Brown would manage to peel off a few Republican votes for his plan to extend some tax increases in order to help balance the state budget. Their reasoning was that a bunch of Republicans would get redistricted out of their seats, and with no plausible reelection chances anyway they might be willing to commit political suicide in the service of the greater good by voting for Brown's plan.

But this story suggests a different mechanism: that at least a few of the moderate Republicans in the legislature will be faced not with certain death, but merely with districts that are a bit more centrist — or perhaps modestly Democratic leaning. Still winnable, but only if they demonstrate their moderate bona fides. And that, not a fatalism born of impending doom, will prompt a few of them to work with Brown.

I guess we'll see. The new district lines aren't set in stone yet (that happens in August), and as usual, there are almost certainly court fights to look forward to. But the shape of the river seems to be getting clearer: California's legislature is going to have a bigger moderate bloc after next year's elections, and at least a few incumbents are going to have to move to the center if they want to survive. That's going to be especially hard on the California GOP, which has been almost suicidal in its lurch to the far right at the same time that the state has grown increasingly liberal. In the end, though, it will probably be good for them. Democrats are likely to be the short-term winners from this redistricting, but in the long term life might actually get a little more difficult for them. I sure hope so, anyway. They could use a little shaking up too.

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