However Lines Are Drawn, GOP Finds a Way to Lose

By Garry South, Special to The Bee

August 28, 2011

The Sacramento Bee

It’s pretty amusing to listen to the catcalls and caterwauling by California Republicans over the redrawing of electoral district boundaries by the Citizens Redistricting Commission. To hear them tell it, it was all a dastardly, malevolent plot to put Republicans at a disadvantage.

“Illegal” and “probably unconstitutional,” raged state GOP Chair Tom Del Beccaro, in announcing recently that the party would seek to qualify a referendum to overturn the new lines for Senate seats. Republican blogs have been filled with bilge and bile about the commission’s work product and even individual commissioners themselves.

But the redistricting commission was established by the voters in 2008 through passage of Proposition 11. Under the law, the 14-member commission has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans – five each, as well as four members not registered with a party – even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in California by more than 13 percentage points and 2.25 million voters. At least three of the five Republicans had to vote to approve the new lines. In fact, four of the five voted in favor of the Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization lines, and three voted to approve the congressional lines.

To put the Republican complaining in perspective, let’s review the history and outcome of the last two redistricting efforts – and how Republicans performed under each.

In 1991, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the redistricting plan of the Democratic-controlled Legislature, and under state law the job of drawing the lines was assigned to a so-called panel of “special masters” – three retired judges appointed by the state Supreme Court. Just like the Citizens Redistricting Commission about which the Republicans now complain, these judges were not allowed to consider partisan registration, where incumbents lived, or any of the other political considerations that often figure into lines drawn by the Legislature.

So how did Republicans fare under these nonpartisan lines? In 1992, despite a concerted effort by Wilson and his allies to gain legislative seats, Democrats actually picked up a seat in the Assembly. In 1994, the Republicans did take back the Assembly – barely – for the first time since 1970, in a terrible election year for Democrats in which the GOP also took over the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. But that didn’t last long, and they lost the Assembly again in the very next election, and haven’t come close to winning control of either chamber since.

In the congressional races, the Republicans also ultimately lost out under the neutral lines. Going into the 2000 election year, California’s then 52 congressional seats were nearly evenly split, with Democrats holding 28 and Republicans 24. But in the 2000 presidential year, Democrats grabbed four GOP-held seats – under the lines drawn by judges.

So at the end of the decade under the fairly drawn ’91 lines, Republicans went into the 2002 election year with only 20 of the 52 congressional seats, 14 of the 40 Senate seats and 30 of the 80 Assembly seats.

Which brings us to the 2001 redistricting. National Republicans, including Karl Rove in George W. Bush’s White House, and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, were freaked out by the fact Democrats had stolen four GOP-held seats in California in 2000, and were desperate to cut a deal protecting the remaining 20 seats in the biggest state. With Gray Davis now the Democratic governor, and solid Democratic control of both legislative chambers, Republicans feared that a Democratic-controlled gerrymander in 2001 could cost the GOP even more congressional seats in 2002.

So a deal was cooked between both Republican and Democratic legislative leaders to engage in a bipartisan gerrymander designed to protect the existing Republican members of Congress, while allowing Democrats essentially a free hand to maintain their hegemony in the Senate and Assembly. The self-serving agreement passed both houses of the Legislature by a bipartisan, two-thirds vote.

But even though the main focus was to protect the GOP-held congressional seats, the party still lost one of its 20 seats in 2006, and failed to win it back in both 2008 and 2010. And as we go into the 2012 election year, Republicans are in roughly the same sorry shape they were at the end of the last decade – only 19 of the now 53 congressional seats, 15 seats in the state Senate, and only 28 in the Assembly.

The dirty little secret is, in the past two decades California Republicans have proved to be uncompetitive under lines drawn both by nonpartisan judges with no political ax to grind, as well as by the Legislature in a bipartisan gerrymander in which they were an eager participant.

No matter how or where the lines are drawn, Republicans are at a continuing and increasing disadvantage because they are at an all-time historical low – 30.9 percent – in terms of percentage of the electorate, consistently take hard-right positions that are at odds with a majority of voters, and have proved to be incapable of appealing to the Latinos and Asian Americans who as of the 2010 census now constitute an absolute majority of Golden State residents.

Instead of filing lawsuits and accusing a nonpartisan commission of a partisan tilt that only Republicans can see, they would be better advised to spend their time in some soul-searching about their declining fortunes no matter how district lines are drawn.

So Republicans, despite the admonition of our school crossing guards, the lines may not be your friends. But to see your biggest enemy, just look in the mirror.

Garry South is a longtime Democratic strategist and commentator who was Gov. Gray Davis’ senior political adviser, including during the 2001 redistricting.