For the first time in two decades, California's newly drawn congressional districts could play a big role in deciding which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, needing 25 more seats to take the House back from Republicans, has singled out eight California seats -- many of them made more attractive by recent redistricting -- as "red to blue" targets this year. At stake is whether San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi gets another turn with the speaker's gavel, which she held from 2007 to 2011.
But the National Republican Congressional Committee has five California candidates on its list of "young guns" ready to dash to the finish line in districts either now held by Democrats or left without incumbents by redistricting.
Both sides say California is now more of a key battleground than it has been in years. So the state might finally be the site of some major campaign spending instead of just serving as the nation's political ATM.
During most election cycles in the past 20 years, there haven't been more than two or three truly competitive congressional races in California, said NRCC Executive Director Guy Harrison. This year, there could be a dozen.
"There's no doubt that California is going to see much more activity on the congressional side than at least in the last two decades," he said.
Bay Area residents, however, will have little say in who gets to rule the House. With the exception of the race between Rep. Jerry McNerney, an East Bay Democrat being challenged by a 24-year-old UC Berkeley law student, none of the competitive contests are in the Bay Area. Most are in Southern California and the Central Valley.
DCCC Chairman Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., agreed that redistricting has put California back in play to a point that Democrats can't just sit back and try to ride the president's coattails. But "unquestionably, the better the president does in California, the more seats we pick up," he said.
California, Illinois, Texas and Florida are where the Democratic Party sees the most opportunities, yet only Florida is likely to be a presidential swing state. So in the three other states, Israel said, "we're going to run these campaigns on our own terrain, with our resources, with our own message."
The battle plan is still evolving -- for both sides.
The GOP's Harrison noted that although the California coast is pretty solidly Democratic, most of the hot races are toward the state's purplish interior, where the heavy concentration of "decline-to-state" voters makes past elections a poor predictor of what's to come.
"It's hard for both committees to understand what are targets and what are not," Harrison said.
Incumbents like McNerney, John Garamendi, Dan Lungren, Jeff Denham, Lois Capps, Mary Bono Mack and Brian Bilbray are trying to fend off a diverse field of challengers that include a physician, a former lieutenant governor and a former NASA astronaut. In other districts, new lines mean open seats with no incumbents at all.
Voters in these districts can expect a blitz of advertising and boots-on-the-ground campaigning, and perhaps even some big names visiting from across the nation to stump on candidates' behalf.
Harrison said the Democrats and Republicans each spent an average of about $1 million to $1.5 million per contested race in 2010. Those figures include both direct campaign spending and independent expenditures.
If the spending pattern holds true this year and a dozen California districts really are in play, that's up to $36 million the parties might spend here, he said.
That alone is something new here, said James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional & Presidential Studies in Washington, D.C. "California is used frequently to collect money to use elsewhere, by both Democrats and Republicans," he said.
But with 23 distinct media markets and 12 of the 55 House races deemed competitive by the renowned Cook Political Report, California this year "is going to drain a lot of money, with equal impact for Democrats and Republicans," Thurber said.
He credits the change to the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, created and empowered by a pair of successful ballot measures to strip the Legislature of its authority to draw new districts based on 2010 census data.
The early 1990s saw similar vibrancy after the state Supreme Court appointed a panel of retired judges to draw redistricting lines after Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the maps drawn by the Democrat-dominated Legislature. In contrast, the Legislature's 2001 redistricting kept most districts safe for incumbents of both parties, leaving few in play.
This year's action in California once again "shows what can happen when the members don't draw the lines themselves," Thurber said, noting that he's a big fan of citizen panels.
"The year after redistricting is the best opportunity for a seat to flip control, for parties to pick up new seats, because open seats are just easier to win," agreed Bruce Cain, who directs the University of California Washington Center.
It's too early to know whether there will be a national partisan wave, as the Democrats had in 2006 and 2008 and the Republicans had in 2010, Cain said. With the economy, a payroll tax extension, several foreign-policy hot spots and many other variables in flux, "we don't really know who's going to get blamed for what," he said.
Tom Del Beccaro, chairman of the California Republican Party, said Rasmussen polls for years have shown more voters want Republicans in charge of Congress -- he dismissed other polls showing just the opposite -- and a projected spike in gas prices this spring could hurt the president's popularity.
"So when the Democrats tell me they think it's going to be a good year for them, the polling doesn't indicate that," he said. "I expect Obama's going to lose, and I expect that's going to hurt Democrats in California in the fall, and there's no amount of new math that's going to add up to them taking the House back."
Phooey, said California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton.
"You know, he's the guy who thought Meg Whitman would beat Jerry Brown" for governor in 2010, Burton said of Del Beccaro.
"Everybody's entitled to their point of view, yet basically the polls indicate that people aren't happy with Congress but are much more unhappy with the Republicans than they are with Democrats," Burton said, adding that polls also show the tumultuous Republican presidential debates didn't win over any GOP converts.
"I believe were going to do quite well building on what we did in 2010 in California," he said, citing Democrats' sweep of statewide races even while a Republican wave swept the rest of the nation.
"The proof of the pudding," Burton said, "will be in the eating."
Colusa County Supervisor Kim Dolbow Vann, 36, of Arbuckle, outshined a few other Republicans to earn the national GOP's backing against incumbent Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove. Vann has raised her profile by being active in state and national counties' associations, and -- if you factor in some outstanding debts -- finished 2011 with about $159,000. Garamendi, 67, who has about $278,000 unencumbered, is no longer a Bay Area congressman. His old 10th District had included the heart of Contra Costa County, but now he hopes to represent Solano County, Lake and Colusa counties, and the Yuba-Sutter area. The National Republican Congressional Committee notes that Garamendi, who was California's lieutenant governor and insurance commissioner before being elected to Congress in 2009, never carried this area when running for statewide office. Yet the new district's registration favors Democrats by about 9 percentage points, and Garamendi has an incumbent's advantage in fundraising and name recognition.
District 7 -- Red to blue?
This is Democrat Amerish "Ami" Bera's second bite at the apple: Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, beat him by 7 percentage points in 2010 in what was then the 3rd Congressional District. But the Elk Grove physician hopes the one-point Democratic registration edge he has in the new district (compared with a three-point GOP edge he faced in 2010) plus House Republicans' low popularity will buoy him to victory this year. Bera, 46, is a professor and former associate dean at the UC Davis School of Medicine; earlier, he was Sacramento County's chief medical officer. Counting some unpaid debts, his campaign finished 2011 with about $646,000, compared with Lungren's $507,000. Lungren, 65, has been in the House since 2004. He was California's attorney general from 1991 to 1999, and he represented the Long Beach area in the House from 1979 to 1989.
District 9 -- An extremely 'young gun'
This is one very young gun indeed: Lodi Republican Ricky Gill won't turn 25, the minimum age for House members, until four weeks before June's primary election. Still, he's achieved "contender" status within the NRCC's Young Guns program. Gill, who's finishing up his law degree at UC Berkeley, cites his family's business roots in the district and his leadership experience as an appointed student member of the state Board of Education as he takes on Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton. But McNerney, 60, is seeking his fourth term in a district with a nine-point Democratic registration edge, an advantage he didn't have in his old 11th District. McNerney finished 2011 with about $780,000 in the bank. Gil, after factoring in some debts, had about $695,000.
District 10 -- Red, blue or black?
This district could go from red to blue and into the inky black of space if the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee's pick, former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez picks off incumbent freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater. Although he calls Stockton his hometown, Hernandez, 49, has lived in Houston -- near the Johnson Space Center -- for the past decade; his campaign logo resembles those of space shuttle missions, one of which he flew in 2009. Denham, 44, was elected to the 19th Congressional District seat in 2010; earlier, he was a two-term state senator. The new 10th District -- which includes Tracy and Manteca -- has a two-point Democratic registration edge heavy with Latinos who might like Hernandez' farm-fields-to-the-International-Space-Station life story. But even after factoring in some outstanding debts, Denham had about $735,000 in the bank at 2011's end, while Hernandez had about $131,000.