Politics

UPDATE: Are California's top-two primary and citizen-drawn districts a success?

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) is retiring this year after nearly 40 years in Congress.
U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) is retiring this year after nearly 40 years in Congress.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) is retiring this year after nearly 40 years in Congress.
Freshman Democrat Julia Brownley is only 500 votes ahead in her Ventura County Congressional District. (Kitty Felde/KPCC)
Kitty Felde/KPCC
U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) is retiring this year after nearly 40 years in Congress.
Another Freshman Democrat in Congress, Scott Peters of El Centro, may lose his seat in a race that's currently too close to call.


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Two years ago, California sent 14 new freshmen to Congress. This election, we're sending at least seven more. Is it a sign that the state's citizen-drawn redistricting and the top-two primary have succeeded in shaking up a political process that practically guaranteed re-election for incumbents?

Not so fast. No incumbent has lost, at least not yet. Several races are too close to call.

As of Friday morning, freshman Democrat Ami Bera of Sacramento is losing to a former member of Congress, Republican Doug Ose by more than two thousand votes. But Sacramento County election officials say they still have more than 60,000 mail-in and provisional ballots still to count. 

Three races of other incumbents are still too close to call:

The new districts have made many races more competitive - and certainly played a part in Republican Gary Miller's decision not to run again. Two years ago, the new lines put him in the same district as fellow GOP Congressman Ed Royce. Miller jumped districts, switching from Orange to San Bernardino County. But the new district is slightly more Democratic. In 2012, Democrats put up multiple candidates; Miller won the seat, defeating the Republican who finished second and qualified for the "top two" ballot. Miller's decision to retire rather than face a tough race created an open seat. Pete Aguilar, the mayor of Redlands, has declared victory over Republican Paul Chabot. As of Thursday night, his lead is over 2200 votes, but San Bernardino County still has 60,000 votes yet to count.will now represent the 31st.

Those other new faces on Capitol Hill? They are replacing incumbents who decided to step down on their own - for various reasons unrelated to redistricting.

John Lawrence, who teaches Congressional history at the University of California's Washington Center, says both Democrats Henry Waxman from Los Angeles and George Miller from the San Francisco Bay area served 40 years in Congress, putting them in the top fifty lawmakers in terms of longevity. Both, he says, accomplished a good deal legislatively in the areas of education and the environment. They will be replaced in the House by another pair of Democrats, Mark DeSaulnier and Ted Lieu.

Republican Congressman John Campbell spent 20 years on Capitol Hill, but called it quits as well. His replacement is fellow Republican Mimi Walters.

Republican Buck McKeon's retirement had more to do with House GOP rules. Because of term limits on committee chairmanship, McKeon will be stepping down as head of one of  the most powerful committees in Congress: Armed Services. Returning as a member at large, says Lawrence, is "somewhat less appealing." McKeon's district will now be represented by Steve Knight, a fellow Republican.

One unusual reason for retiring: freshman Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod of Montclair decided she'd had enough of traveling back and forth to California. She won a seat on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. Lawrence says as a county supervisor in California, you can affect a great many people and "you can help implement programs that if successful, serve as models for expansion to the state or even national level." The 35th district will now be represented by Democrat Norma Torres.

So did the citizen-drawn districts accomplish what voters wanted?

Those more-competitive districts created unintended consequences. Marc Sandalow, associate academic director of the University of California Washington Center says the problem for California is that it's "unilaterally disarming." 

While California tries "this great experiment," he says, Texas and New York aren't "and that's a problem." Other lawmakers build up the seniority that lands them chairmanships and clout, while California continues to send rookies to Washington.

Veteran Democrat Henry Waxman says it's not just a problem for California. "If every state had done that, instead of the Republicans having the great advantage they had of gerrymandering in most other states, the votes in 2012 would have produced a majority of Democrats for the Congress."

But he admits in a year like 2014, the swing towards the Republicans likely would have happened anyway.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and more than a dozen other California lawmakers vigorously fought the 2010 ballot measure that put redistricting in the hands of citizens. Sandalow says its passage has forced Pelosi and other Democrats to defend their seats, spending campaign dollars here in the very blue state of California instead of shipping them to their congressional colleagues across the country. 

This story was updated at 7 AM Friday with the latest election results.