Journalism in the Public Interest

In California, Democrats’ Redistricting Strategy Paid Off

Last year, Democrats in Congress went to great lengths
to undermine a new, non-partisan redistricting process in California. The
elections show the results.


Jerry McNerney won California's 9th congressional district with 59.1% of the vote in Contra Costa County and 52.1% of the vote in San Joaquin. (Jeff Larson / 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.

clarence swinney

Nov. 9, 2012, 3:59 p.m.

What is wrong with republicans? We need revenue to balance the books,
Fight for tax cut on top 2%
2% own 50% financial wealth—get 30% individual income—include these incomes in millions—4000-3000-2000-1000-500-100-50-10
They need more money?
Republicans act crazy.
We cannot keep adding to “their” debt added on since 1980.
Yes! Their debt. Less than 1000 in 1980. Reagan cut top rate 70% and added 189% to debt
Bush cut for top and added 6000 Billion to debt. Yes! 6000 Billion.
Much added in Obama four a result of Bush policies
CBO wrote 5100B was added 2001-2010 by Bush “new” policies
Obama gets blame forBush add ons.
Obama will increase spending less than any president—-2% to 8% is predicted
as his increase in four years.

How many Democratic incumbents lost their seats in 2010? I looked at a couple listings and couldn’t find any incumbents who had lost their seat and that was the year that the republicans took back the House. Did the redistricting strategy take effect for the 2010 elections too?

Helen Hutchison

Nov. 10, 2012, 2:48 a.m.

While I generally respect the work done by Pro Publica, in this case, they missed the mark in the first article, and continue to do so as they push the same line of reasoning.  To see the general de-bunking of the the first article, read here:

I think it’s just fine that they are doing this in California. They have a super majority now. That just means they will be giving more money to the public employees. The state is on course to crash into a mountain and they just increased the throttle. More companies and wealthy people will be moving too. 

As long as the Feds don’t step in to help, bankruptcy will be what they need. Heaven forfend they act like adults.

Linda Burrell

Nov. 12, 2012, 5:10 p.m.

This article omits a number of salient facts.  First, for many years Republican voter registration in California has been falling and many parts of California that were formerly Republican now include a majority of “minorities,” including Hispanics who turned out in greater numbers than the Republicans anticipated here and elsewhere.  Second, the voters in California had a chance to reject the redistricting via an initiative placed on the ballot.  That initiative failed.  The final point is an old one: correlation does not equal cause and effect.

It is hardly surprising that California widely acknowledged to be reliably “Blue” would reject the Republicans who have consistently blocked all efforts to raise revenues via any kind of tax increase during the same election we voted in favor of a measure that both taxes wealthy Californians and increases the sales tax in order to prevent severe cuts to our already damaged and endangered education system.

The Democrats redistricting also paid off very well for them in Illinois. The border between the 5th and 6th Congressional districts runs down my street. My old 13th district is completely gone. My former Representative, who has served for thirty years and lives several blocks away from me, ended up running unsuccessfully in the redrawn 11th district (which contained a sizable number of her constituents).

The tortured lines of the new districts are laughable, but not being part of a recognized minority group my disenfranchisement doesn’t count.

clarence swinney

Nov. 13, 2012, 12:19 p.m.

Bsuh increased Spending 90% and Deficit to 1400B
Obama will cut spending to 2%—8% increase
amd deficit by at least 40%
SShhhhhh do not tell   Be modest.

The House of Representatives—
Where was President Obama work on behalf of Congress??
Did I just miss it?
He had a long list of accomplishments in spite of fights by Republicans to stop them. A good search shows them.
I do not understand that lack of effort to win ALL of Congress!
Do you? The PeoplesView.Net—- has many many opinions on it.
I wanted a fight- bare knuckles. A ko—not—- tko.
His budget and Tax proposals will have a hard time in The House with Tea Pottie adversaries= no tax =no tax =no tax=just borrow=just borrow=just borrow
We can easily balance the budget. A 35% Effective Tax on just top10% does it.
In 2009, they paid about a 15% Effective Tax Rate. They have 73% of Net Wealth—83% Financial Wealth and get 50% individual income. Stop being suckered Americans balance that durn budget by FAIR taxation. Clarence swinney

This article seems to be more about justifying the first flawed article than doing a real analysis.  Shame on ProPublica.  Let me give an example—this piece does not mention that THREE incumbent democratic members of the house LOST to three challenging democrats.  Did this happen in ANY other state?? In addition, any look at house seats that remain toss-ups at the national level reveals a disproportionate number from California—consistent with the hypothesis that races were more competitive in California than in most other states.  Third, any look at the actual votes in California house races reveals a large number where the democratic member won by margins exceeding 10%—consistent with the hypothesis that republicans are simply a minor party in Calif and would be minor in any fair and balanced redistricting.  A few memos from a few politicians does not prove anything.  How about hiring a real statistician like Nate Silver or Sam Wang to do some real research and test your hypothesis using real data and science—lets skip this seat of the pants, gut hypothesis, cherry picked memo, approach to politics.

With all the results in, how hard would it be to do an analysis of every close race and see if California had a higher rate of incumbency than did any other state? you could also include past elections and try to see if there’s any difference? Right now, this story seems like a lot of cherry picking with no attempt to add statistical context, even though the statistics are surely easy to find if you wanted to?

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Redistricting: How Powerful Interests Are Drawing You Out of a Vote

How secret money and power interests are drawing you out of a vote.

The Story So Far

Redistricting should be a way of ensuring your vote counts. If all districts have roughly the same number of people in them and are drawn to respect natural communities—neighborhoods where people share a heritage, work in the same industry, or just generally feel tied to their neighbors—voters have a chance to be represented by politicians who represent their areas’ collective interests.

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