In California, Democrats’ redistricting strategy paid off

ProPublica Staff

Sacramento, CA, United States (ProPublica) – Last year we wrote about how Democrats used front groups, disingenuous testimony, and other aggressive tactics to manipulate California’s independent redistricting commission. The effort was meant to create safe seats for the Democratic Party and in particular for incumbents.

“Every member of the Northern California Democratic Caucus has a ticket back to DC,” said one enthusiastic memo written as the process was winding down.

So how did congressional Democrats do in California after redistricting shook everything up? Quite well.

Of 34 Democratic incumbents, only three lost their races, all three to other Democrats. Overall, Democrats in California gained four seats. (One race is close and may result in a recount.)

There are, of course, many variables at work in any election (enthusiasm for the party’s presidential candidate, turnout, gaffes, hair shininess). And in some cases, the new districts did result in harder campaigning and higher spending.

But the Democrats’ performance in California appears to be a powerful illustration of how redistricting can help incumbents.

Consider the case of Jerry McNerney, who just won a healthy victory in the 9th Congressional district, a northern California seat just south of Sacramento.

Nobody thought it would be that way. McNerney, running in conservative country, beat his Republican opponent in 2010 by just 3,000 votes. The Washington Post deemed him an almost certain victim of redistricting.

It would be hard to draw a winnable district for him in the area, and it would be hard for anyone to justify the continuation of his octopus-shaped gerrymander before the citizen commission.

Yet, as our earlier reporting showed, McNerney was part of a coordinated effort by the California Democratic Congressional Delegation to lock in a redrawing of Northern California districts that all-but-guaranteed a safe seat for every incumbent who wanted one.

A purportedly Republican-friendly shell group encouraged Republicans in the region to push the commission for a district that was actually against their party’s best interests. The group was connected to Paul Mitchell, a Democratic political consultant, and helped McNerney

get a liberal pocket – in Contra Costa County – into the district. (Both McNerney and Mitchell did not respond to requests for comment.)

It worked. The commission drew the desired map, McNerney relocated to his custom-drawn new district, and the election results tell the rest: McNerney won his new district by eight percentage points, and won the liberal Contra Costa pocket by 18 points. In the rest of the district, he squeezed by with just a few thousand votes.

Much of the attention on the elections in California had been focused on another race, between two titans in the state’s Democratic delegation, Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman. The fact that they were competing in the same district was portrayed as a sign that in the topsy-turvy world of redistricting,

incumbents could not guarantee re-election via custom-tailored district. Media outlets proclaimed a battle royale between the two savvy politicians. But while the race did yield its moments (like a video of the two candidates in a near-scuffle on stage), it may never have been that close, in part thanks to redistricting.

Campaign finance records from April, May and July 2011 – all months the redistricting commission was active — show that Sherman employed the same Democratic consultant, Paul Mitchell, who helped engineer McNerney’s redistricting success.

With an assist from redistricting maps submitted to the commission by another Mitchell client, the final district encompassed 60 percent of Sherman’s old district and only 16 percent of Berman’s.

In a statement to ProPublica last year, Berman said: “I just chose not to do what many on both sides of the aisle did: try to sway the commission to do something that was good for one member,”

While many have assumed that redistricting forced the congressmen to run against each other, Sherman appears to have had another option. There was another nearby district that many within the party thought would be perfect for Sherman. Indeed there were calls within the party for him to move there.

That would have allowed both Berman and Sherman a good chance at reelection. It also could have kept a competitive seat from going Republican simply for lack of a quality Democratic candidate.

But why would Sherman move when he could have a district even more suited to him?

In the end it was not even close. Sherman won with 60.5 percent of the vote compared to Berman’s 39.5 percent.

Sherman’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

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  1. grimmel

    California voters give thanks for the redistricting commission. Your ideas however are just sour grapes.

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