Democrats’ Chance to Draw Kevin McCarthy Out of a Job

California’s congressional districts may be about to get invalidated, offering Democrats a chance to write the House Republicans’ Majority Leader into trouble.

California's 23rd congressional district - since January 3, 2013.  
National Journal
March 2, 2015, 3 p.m.

With a little help from the Su­preme Court, Cali­for­nia Demo­crats could get a shot at knock­ing Kev­in Mc­Carthy out of of­fice.

Mc­Carthy, the House ma­jor­ity lead­er, second only to Speak­er John Boehner, cur­rently rep­res­ents a safe Re­pub­lic­an dis­trict in Cali­for­nia’s Cent­ral Val­ley. But that map may be about to change: The Su­preme Court is cur­rently weigh­ing a case that could in­val­id­ate the state’s cur­rent dis­trict bound­ar­ies and hand the state’s Demo­crat­ic­ally con­trolled Le­gis­lature the au­thor­ity to re­draw the map.

That would in­clude Mc­Carthy’s dis­trict, and Demo­crats have sev­er­al op­tions for re­draw­ing it that make Re­pub­lic­ans nervous. “The real op­por­tun­ity for shenanigans from Demo­crats is to mess with Mc­Carthy,” said Mike Mad­rid, a Cali­for­nia GOP con­sult­ant.

Two strategies stand out: Demo­crats could either move Mc­Carthy in­to the same dis­trict as neigh­bor­ing GOP in­cum­bent Dav­id Valadao, or they could turn Mc­Carthy’s cur­rent dis­trict in­to swing ter­rit­ory by rop­ing in nearby His­pan­ic Demo­crats, an elect­or­al coun­ter­weight in a dis­trict that cur­rently con­sists mostly of non-His­pan­ic white con­ser­vat­ives.

The first op­tion would cre­ate an in­terne­cine struggle between Cali­for­nia Re­pub­lic­ans, for­cing Mc­Carthy to run in a mod­er­ate dis­trict where Valadao has sur­vived as a pro-im­mig­ra­tion re­form Re­pub­lic­an. As of last cycle, Valadao’s dis­trict was 72 per­cent His­pan­ic, and in 2012, 55 per­cent of voters in the dis­trict favored Pres­id­ent Obama over Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney.

The second op­tion would see Mc­Carthy and Valadao each keep a dis­trict of his own, but would make Mc­Carthy’s dis­trict much tough­er turf for the five-term rep­res­ent­at­ive. That may not be enough to run the ma­jor­ity lead­er out of of­fice, but it would cre­ate chal­lenges for a can­did­ate who has had an easy path to reelec­tion in re­cent cycles. In 2012, Mc­Carthy got 73 per­cent of his dis­trict’s vote, and this Novem­ber, he took home just shy of 75 per­cent. (Rep­res­ent­at­ives for Mc­Carthy did not reply to re­quests for com­ment for this story.)

So why haven’t Demo­crats done this already? Cali­for­nia’s most-re­cent dis­trict map was drawn by an in­de­pend­ent com­mis­sion, an ef­fort by state voters to com­bat ger­ry­man­der­ing by a par­tis­an Le­gis­lature. The valid­ity of that map is sit­ting be­fore the Su­preme Court, where plaintiffs are ar­guing that the Con­sti­tu­tion per­mits only state le­gis­latures to draw such maps. In or­al ar­gu­ments Monday, the pan­el’s con­ser­vat­ive justices ap­peared skep­tic­al that com­mis­sion-drawn dis­tricts were in keep­ing with the Con­sti­tu­tion.

And if they do get a chance to re­draw the map, Demo­crats will have more lee­way than be­fore, thanks to the Su­preme Court’s 2013 de­cision in­val­id­at­ing por­tions of the Vot­ing Rights Act. The law pre­vi­ously pro­hib­ited states from di­lut­ing minor­it­ies’ polit­ic­al in­flu­ence in cer­tain dis­tricts, but that lan­guage was weakened as part of the Court’s rul­ing. Valadao, whose dis­trict neigh­bors Mc­Carthy’s, in­cludes a county that pre­vi­ously placed those re­stric­tions on con­gres­sion­al lines, which is why his dis­trict takes an odd shape to in­clude as many His­pan­ic voters as pos­sible.

Demo­crats haven’t spe­cific­ally said they’ll go after Mc­Carthy, but they ap­pear very much aware of the polit­ic­al op­por­tun­it­ies if the Su­preme Court wipes the map clean and hands them the pens. “It’ll be Christ­mas in March if it hap­pens for us here,” said Steven Maviglio, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant. “Des­pite all pre­tenses, I’m sure it’ll be as par­tis­an as they can make it.”

But as tempt­ing as Demo­crats might find it to tar­get Mc­Carthy, there are draw­backs as well. The party’s top pri­or­ity in re­dis­trict­ing will likely be to de­fend the state’s many Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents. And so if Demo­crat­ic voters are be­ing moved out of Valadao’s dis­trict for polit­ic­al pur­poses, the party may de­cide to by­pass an at­tack on Mc­Carthy in or­der to provide a more friendly elect­or­ate to Demo­crat­ic Reps. Jim Costa and Lois Capps — both of whom have faced close elec­tions in re­cent cycles.

For now, all plans are on hold pending a rul­ing from the Su­preme Court. The case be­fore the Court ac­tu­ally star­ted in Ari­zona, where the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled Le­gis­lature is su­ing the state’s voter-cre­ated, in­de­pend­ent com­mis­sion for draw­ing dis­tricts. But if the Court does strike down Ari­zona’s sys­tem, it will al­most cer­tainly take down Cali­for­nia’s dis­trict bound­ar­ies — as well as those of sev­er­al oth­er states that handed their maps to in­de­pend­ent com­mis­sions — and set up a chaot­ic polit­ic­al struggle as parties jockey to move the lines on the map to their ad­vant­age.

The Su­preme Court is ex­pec­ted to is­sue a rul­ing late this spring.

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