The last time California redrew its congressional districts, Republicans and Democrats cut a deal to preserve all the incumbents, essentially erasing the country’s biggest electoral fishing ground from the map in 2002.
But voters weren’t amused. In the intervening years, they established a citizens commission to redraw the lines. In the process, they declared open season on incumbents and set up what political analysts say could be a dozen races to watch next year.
Across the state line in Arizona, though, a citizens commission has had a much colder reception: Gov. Jan Brewer last week moved to impeach the commission chairwoman, citing “gross misconduct.” Democrats said the commission’s only offense was drawing lines that gave their party a chance to win four of the state’s nine congressional districts.
With this past Sunday marking a year to go until the 2012 elections, the redistricting process is just about completed. Combined with the unsettled nature of politics, it suggests that dozens of seats could be in play across the country.
“There is just more political unrest in the country this year compared with 2001,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. “In 2001, we had just been through Sept. 11, there was a rare sense of national unity, and that is in stark contrast to the climate in the country today: bitter partisanship and two sharply divided parties and ideologies.”
That bitterness is most apparent in Arizona, where the GOP-controlled state Senate accepted Mrs. Brewer’s impeachment call and removed the commission chairwoman.
The state’s congressional delegation has five Republicans and three Democrats, and Arizona is gaining one more House seat. Republicans say that given the political leanings, the final map should split 6-3 in favor of the GOP, but they think the map that the commission drew would have resulted in a 5-4 map.
Michael McDonald, a redistricting analyst and professor at George Mason University, said the GOP’s fears are probably overstated. He said the map creates three competitive districts, and Republicans are assuming Democrats would win all of them - something Mr. McDonald said is unlikely in the current political climate.
“They’re just so afraid of losing a seat. It tells you just how high the stakes are in Congress, that they’re willing to take these extraordinary steps to impeach the chairman of the commission,” he said.
Mr. McDonald, who advised Arizona’s commission in 2001, said the GOP is essentially “working the refs” similar to the way Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, did a decade ago, the first time the commission was in effect.
This is the first year for California’s commission, and it produced a vastly different map from what the politicians drew up in 2001, which essentially preserved nearly every incumbent district and deleted just one Republican district.
“I thought it was a hell of a deal,” said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who ran Republicans’ congressional campaign committee at the time.
This time, the map foreshadows some major tangles, including a number of primaries: longtime Democratic Reps. Howard L. Berman and Brad Sherman have been drawn into the same district in the San Fernando Valley, while north of them, Republican Reps. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon and Elton Gallegly have ended up in the same seat.
The Cook Political Report rates six of the 20 seats as pure tossups headed into next year’s elections. That means California, which accounts for just 12 percent of the country’s congressional seats, has 30 percent of the tossup races.
Not everyone agrees with that read. The Rothenberg Political Report rates just three seats as tossups - but that’s still a major leap over last time.
The lines have been challenged in court, and some in the GOP say they have been targeted by the new map, arguing that Democrats could net five or more seats out of the process. But other Republicans, including those in Washington, don’t seem to be as worried.
“Congressional Republicans pulled out of the attempt to do a referendum on the congressional lines,” said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. “That starts to tell you that something fishy is going on here, because if it was such a rape of the Republican Party you wouldn’t expect a division in the ranks. And it’s now becoming clear that there is some sort of factional fighting going on here.”
He said there are a number of districts “where Democratic incumbents are going to have to fight very hard” to keep control, and some of those could tilt toward the GOP.
Among other states, Republicans hope to pick up at least a couple of seats in North Carolina, while in Illinois, Democrats control the entire process and worked to push Republicans out of some seats.
Now, with most maps drawn, Mr. McDonald said, attention switches to the courts, where Democrats are challenging some of the lines.
“Republicans dominated the partisan gerrymandering phase. Now we’re going to see how well the Democrats can beat back the partisan gerrymander,” he said.
Then there are the surprises. Mr. Davis said Democrats may have overreached across the country - and he doesn’t see a big enough wave building to switch control of the House.
“Democrats need 25 seats is the bottom line, and you don’t pick up 25 seats without a wave,” he said. “Right now it’s hard to see a Democratic wave.”
The Rothenberg Political Report shows roughly 80 competitive seats shaping up for next year, compared with 54 that were rated competitive just before the 2002 elections.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said even with redistricting not completed, it’s already clear that a number of vulnerable Republicans had their positions improved in the process.
He said 51 Republican House members sit in districts that Barack Obama won in 2008, and at least half of those now have better districts, thanks to redistricting.
But after suffering historic losses in 2010, Democrats say they can only go up. Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he already detects “a sustained breeze at our backs.”
Mr. Israel said his party has kept retirements to lower than their average after a power shift in the chamber, and said the anti-incumbent mood will hurt the GOP more than it will hurt Democrats in the House.