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California’s new political maps may boost Democrats in U.S. House

In California, where congressional elections have been as predictable as traffic gridlock, new political maps are likely to set the stage for more competitive races and give the state a higher profile in the battle for Congress.

Political analysts predict that Democrats — who hold a 33-19 advantage in the state’s House delegation, with one vacancy in a seat previously held by a Democrat — could pick up three to five more.

“You’re going to have something like up to a quarter of the [California] seats being possibly competitive,” UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain said.

Jim Ross, a San Francisco-based Democratic consultant, added, “It’s very likely you’re going to start seeing national groups really paying attention to these California districts.”

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California, where only one House seat has flipped between the parties since 2002, could feature a slew of competitive races because of the draft redistricting plan released last week. It was drawn up by a citizens commission established by voters to replace districts created by lawmakers with one goal in mind: self-preservation.

Protecting incumbents didn’t seem to be a consideration for the commission, which created a dozen districts that would include the homes of two — and in one case, three — House members.

The maps put a number of lawmakers’ political futures in doubt — perhaps none more than veteran GOP Reps. David Dreier of San Dimas and Gary G. Miller of Diamond Bar — because of the radical changes to their districts that make them less friendly for Republicans.

“It is pretty gloomy for Republicans,” Sacramento-based Republican consultant Dave Gilliard acknowledged, predicting the GOP could lose four House seats in California.

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But Democratic House members aren’t popping champagne corks just yet.

“Even though everybody is saying this is a pretty good Democratic plan, if you took a poll of the Democratic incumbents, I can assure you they are nervous,” Cain said. “Because a lot of them have tougher races.”

Republicans believe they have a shot at beating a number of Democrats, including Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez, in a new district. And some Democrats face the prospect of running in less friendly territory, such as Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara.

“There’s going to be some places where both parties will be spending big money,” said Paul Mitchell, a Sacramento-based Democratic consultant who expects competitive races in 2012 — but less so after the winners settle into their districts.

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The party’s potential gains might surprise Democrats who opposed the citizens redistricting commission as taking power away from state officials, Mitchell said. “But I don’t think that there’s any way the Democratic Legislature and Democratic governor would have been able to create a plan that created five Democratic pickups. They wouldn’t have been able to pull it off,” he said.

Matt Rexroad, a Sacramento-based Republican consultant, cautioned that the maps are subject to change. But if the lines hold, he said, “There are three to five Republican members of Congress who don’t return.”

“We will see more competitive races without a doubt,” Rexroad said. “Once these seats are a little bit more exposed to the waves that go across the country … you will start seeing some changes.”

But the maps, while putting more House seats in play, could reduce the state’s influence on Capitol Hill.

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Dreier, at risk of losing his seat after 30 years in the House, is chairman of the House Rules Committee.

Howard L. Berman, a 28-year House veteran and the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, faces a tough race in a proposed new San Fernando Valley district against fellow Democrat Brad Sherman — who, in anticipation of the redistricting, has amassed more than $3 million in his campaign treasury.

And Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who recently became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, faces a tougher race.

Over the weekend, lawmakers and their political aides were still studying the maps and demographic and political data to assess their options.

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Although the plan is subject to change, it already has done something that few other issues have: brought together much of the state’s fractured delegation to express its disdain for the draft.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) said he was trying to figure out “what was going through the commissioners’ minds” in creating a district that put struggling Pico Union and spiffy Beverly Hills in the same district.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) complained about Redlands being “split down the middle in a way that must surely bring great concern to community leaders.”

Analysts said the proposed California districts could help Democrats offset gains Republicans have been expected to make through redistricting in other states.

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“It almost seems like California is going to make up for any Democratic losses as a result of reapportionment,” Mitchell said.

Ross said that many experts thought redistricting throughout the country would cost Democrats seats, making it harder for the party to win control of the House.

“But I don’t think they saw California going this significantly towards Democratic favor,” he said.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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