California's House Isn't In Order, But Its House Races Are In Play

Thursday, November 1, 2012

If you plan to vote by mail in California in this election or have already done so, welcome to the party. Roughly half of the Golden State’s 17 million registered voters now receive absentee ballots – just one of the quirks of politics in the Golden State.

Here’s another: if you’re a Californian and want to have a bigger say in the nation’s doings, then work your way down the left-hand column of your absentee boleta oficial – past the presidential and U.S. Senate choices – to your local congressional race. Depending on which of California’s 53 House districts you reside, your vote may matter – more so than usual.

Chalk it up to three numbers in this election: 270 . . . 4 . . . and 25.

270 is the number of electoral votes necessary to clinch the presidency. California has 55 to offer; they’re going to President Obama as surely as the drive into Dodger Stadium is oppressive and shops on Rodeo Drive are over-priced (despite a rejuvenated campaign, Mitt Romney still trails in the Golden State by 15 points or so).

4 is the number of seats Republicans need to gain in order to reach 51 and majority control of the U.S. Senate. California has one seat up for grabs in this election. Unfortunately for Republicans, that seat’s occupied by Dianne Feinstein. So confident of victory is she that Feinstein wasn’t in California on the night of the June primary, waited until a week before Halloween to run TV ads, and refused to debate her Republican opponent (an odd juxtaposition for a 20-year veteran of the Senate who likens herself to a bridge across the partisan divide).

Then there’s 25: the number of seats Nancy Pelosi needs to regain the Speaker’s gavel.

And that won’t happen without a big assist from her fellow Californians.

Where can Pelosi find 25 Democratic pick-ups (she got 31 seats in 2006, but only 24 in the 2008 landslide)? Take a look here, at Real Clear Politics’ national map of House races – specifically, the 26 seats RCP has designated as “toss-ups”.

Six are in California – four being Republican districts (CA’s 7th26th41st and 52nd Congressional Districts); the other two held by Democrats (CA’s 9th and 24th CD’s). To get to 25, Pelosi needs to sweep those four GOP districts, plus grab two others that RCP rates as “leans GOP” (CA’s 10th and 36th CD’s).

Here’s where the math doesn’t add up for ex-Madame Speaker. In order to run wild in California, Pelosi needs an energized Democratic base. And it’s simply not there, as evidenced by the Golden State’s non-scintillating presidential and senatorial races.

Plus, her timing is off by at least two years.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing Californians to vote on Election Day (the current deadline for registration is 15 days before the election). Potentially, that’s an 8% boost to voter turnout. Democrats see a higher turnout of minority voters; Republicans see a greater risk of voter fraud. Unfortunately for Democrats, that law doesn’t go into effect until the 2014 election – so much for affecting Tuesday’s outcome.

Speaking of bad timing: Pelosi picked a bad year, in 2010, to get caught on the wrong on a Republican landslide. Not only did the GOP pick up 63 House seats, they also made historic gains in state legislative races – controlling the entire legislature in 25 states, 11 more than they had going into the off-year election. Meanwhile, Republicans made gains in gubernatorial races nationwide (the 2012 cycle looking like more of the same), the result being the GOP having an upper hand on congressional redistricting.

Tuesday night’s vote, then, would be where 2010’s hard work pays off. By some estimates, House Republicans start off with 190 seats in their camp, to only 146 for Pelosi and the Democrats. That leaves just 99 competitive districts, a historic low. In order for Pelosi to reach 218 seats, she’d have to win 72 of those 99 contests – a tall order in a year when President Obama presumably lacks coattails.

Here’s another to view the House races: this New York Times ratings map.  The “Grey Lady” has 227 seats solid or leaning Republican to just 183 for Democrats. Its map has just 81 seats in play – 31 leaning Republican, 25 leaning Democratic and 25 as toss-ups (four of them in California btw, the Times: the 7th, 36th, 41st and 52nd districts). Again, do the math: Pelosi would have to hold all her “lean” states, pick up all the toss-ups and another 10 from the GOP “lean” count.

Doesn’t sound likely, does it? And that’s sparked what could a post-election drama: the possibility that Pelosi steps down from her leadership post when the Democrats’ House caucus meets to organize for the next Congress on Nov. 29-30.

Not that she’s in trouble of losing her seat, coming as she does from the heat of San Francisco.

Not that she won’t be wishing for a different outcome in other parts of California, where Democrats and Republicans actually compete.

Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen