With the results of the 2022 California primary certified, attention now turns to the fall elections and candidate showdowns that will determine party control for the next two years. Particular interest falls on the congressional races, since the Democrats control the House of Representatives by a very slim margin. New congressional districts drawn in response to the latest census data inject more uncertainty into the outcome, particularly in California.
There is no official list of competitive seats, but the nonpartisan lists of handicappers generally agree with each other. The map below reflects the longest such list, from Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball. It includes six districts considered occupied by the Republicans and seven by the Democrats. (The districts are all new, so none currently have a representative; we follow Crystal Ball accounting to roughly assign parts to each.)
Voters in these competitive precincts have a disproportionate sway over control of the House of Representatives, but they don’t necessarily resemble the state as a whole. All are just north and south of Los Angeles and in the Central Valley. Six of the 13 have more white citizens of voting age than the state as a whole, and two are just a point or two below the state average. Four are predominantly Latino and four are close to the Latin American average. Four districts are at or above the state average for Asian Americans, while two are at or above the state average for Black residents.
Familiarity with districts varies among incumbents who race there. Republican Michelle Steel faces the toughest challenge in District 45, where only 16% of voters come from her former district. At the other end, Mike Levin in neighboring District 49 enjoys a 91% familiar riding. Overall, the contested seats are about equally familiar to incumbents of the two major parties — 50% of voters familiar with the candidate in Republican-controlled precincts and 60% familiar in Democratic-controlled precincts.
Either way, tenure may not be the perk it once was in the fall election. In recent years, congressional results have deviated little from the presidential vote in each district. In California in 2020, the average U.S. House vote differed from the presidential vote in the same district by only 2.1 percentage points – the largest difference was 6.9 points and only 5 of 46 disputed districts differed by more than 4 points.
Whether that close relationship will continue is uncertain, but the party’s vote aligned exceptionally well with Biden’s vote in the June primary. In new districts, a hard 2020 replay would make any takeover by Republicans highly unlikely.
But another dynamic is at work. In midterm elections, voters typically turn away from the president’s party evenly and support the opposition. In 2022, that would mean subtracting support from every Democratic candidate in the state. If this big change happens – and there is signs that he might— that would make it possible for the Republicans to win in everything competitive seats: in those they currently hold and in those they do not hold.
New districts always favor Democrats in the long run. Voters in the least competitive seat held by a Democrat voted 56% for Biden, while Republicans hold six seats in precincts that voted less than 51% for Trump. A uniform shift to Republicans in those districts will temporarily help the party. Longer-term success will require either turning more voters into cohesive Republicans or getting more voters across the aisle to support individual candidates. Both are possible, but will require a change in the status quo.