California's new Congressional map, set to be released Friday, will dismantle 10 years of bipartisan incumbent safety, thanks to a newly installed independent redistricting process and a wave of political ambition.
Just one seat has changed party hands since the 2001 redistricting, and at the start of the 112th Congress, the average tenure of California's 53 Members was eight terms. That's about to change, with the potential for a handful of Member-vs.-Member races and perhaps a few retirements.
The highest-profile battle is the likely face-off between San Fernando Valley Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, two well-financed Democrats who refuse to back down. But another possible Democratic scuffle is brewing in South Los Angeles between newly elected Rep. Janice Hahn, Rep. Laura Richardson and Assemblyman Isadore Hall in a Compton-based district designed to help African-Americans keep a third LA seat. Hahn won a special election just this month.
"There's no question that incumbents from both parties could have an interesting go of things," Republican consultant Rob Stutzman said. "The gerrymander of the last decade hasn't required really any incumbent to be in a tough race."
Political insiders in the state expect incumbents, challengers and potential candidates to immediately begin polling the new landscape once the lines are released Friday. At least 10 sitting state legislators have already announced their candidacies for Congress, with about as many city council members, mayors and county supervisors also running — before even knowing with certainty in which district they reside.
The up-and-coming candidates are not just running for open seats or against incumbents from the other party. As partisan-controlled redistricting went out the window this year, so did the taboo of intraparty challenges.
"In California, it has been sacrilege to even suggest that you would run against an incumbent," Democratic redistricting expert Paul Mitchell said. "Contrast that with now, state legislators are announcing all over the place."
As examples, Mitchell pointed to Hall running against Richardson and Hahn in Compton, and Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson (R) challenging Rep. Ed Royce, who is involved in a GOP incumbent logjam in Orange County.
"At one point, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal announced when he had two sitting Congress Members in the district," Mitchell said of the Long Beach Democrat. "It is gloves-off, no-holds-barred time."
The process of remaking the state's representation in Congress and the state Legislature won't end Friday, with forthcoming legal challenges expected from all sides of the argument. The potential loss of minority-influenced seats could bring challenges from outside groups, while Republicans have floated the possibility of a public referendum on the maps.
"I think you'll see Republicans, Democrats and a number of special interest groups are going to dig their teeth into this one once the lines are released at the end of the month," California Republican Party spokesman Mark Standriff said. "I think you're going to see some kind of action ... no matter what the lines end up being."
The 14-member state Citizens Redistricting Commission was put in place by ballot initiatives in the last two elections in reaction to the lack of competitiveness and the partisan process used for drawing lines. The new redistricting process will be coupled next year with the state's first regularly scheduled elections under the "jungle" primary rule. With the top two finishers in open primaries advancing to the general, it will lead to intraparty races in November.
The commission has altered the map several times since releasing a first draft June 10, and it made final alterations last weekend. The Friday release of the final map will be followed by a two-week public-review period until the commission votes to adopt it Aug. 15. Adoption requires three votes from each of the commission's subsets: five Democrats, five Republicans and four decline-to-state voters.
The commission itself has already hired legal counsel for possible post-litigation, signing up law firms Morrison Foerster and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
Because of recent map "visualizations" the commission released, incumbents and candidates have a pretty good idea of where they will be running and are already staking out their turf.
With the Member pairings and further possible retirements, the state will host a number of open-seat contests next year.
In San Diego, there is the potential for a competitive open-seat race between state Sen. Juan Vargas (D) and former state Sen. Denise Ducheny (D), whom Vargas succeeded last year after Ducheney was term-limited out of office. Rep. Bob Filner (D) is running for San Diego mayor rather than seeking re-election.
In other open-seat opportunities, Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas (D) is running for the proposed East San Fernando Valley district; Assemblyman David Valadao (R) recently filed candidacy papers with the Federal Election Commission for a proposed Kings County-based district; several Democrats are vying for the Sonoma County-based district of retiring Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D); and candidates from both parties, including Assemblyman Jeff Miller (R) and Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione (R), are running in a newly drawn Riverside-area district.
"Lots of polls will be going out in the field when the plans get adopted," Mitchell said.
Correction: July 28, 2011
An earlier version of this story misidentified Assemblyman David Valadao’s political party. He is a Republican.