ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Demographic changes alongside a dramatic, continuous drop in population have shifted the political landscape in California politics.
Garden variety district changes, along with important district shifts in Rep. Katie Porter’s 45 congressional district and Devin Nunes' departure from politics, have thrown a wrench into the 2022 midterms.
Changes were expected, as was the relatively late arrival of a complete roster of candidates. As districts — and the power each party holds in them — come into focus, candidates will continue to trickle in.
But a change in districts, leading Nunes to retire, has also led Porter to seek reelection in a newly drawn district that still contains her hometown of Irvine.
"It’s not obvious the more coastal Democrats will be interested in the economic justice arguments she’s made as a protege of Elizabeth Warren," said Tony Smith, a political science professor at the University of Irvine, California.
The county will also lose another district as Alan Lowenthal’s, D-Calif., district containing Long Beach moves north.
The shifts, occurring nationwide, often disrupt the best-laid plans of the party holding the White House. The elections this year follow a breakneck pace of legislation pushed by Democrats, including everything from a child tax credit, extra vaccines for foreign nations, infrastructure containing funds for broadband, bridges and roads.
Midterm elections often represent peril for the party in power. With Democrats holding the White House, some political scientists believe Republicans are likely to take the Senate and appear a serious threat to take the House as well. Each seat matters, and both parties will support each vulnerable candidate to the tune of millions of dollars.
Other states use their respective legislatures to redraw districts with critics pointing out the danger of bias toward the party with majority control. California’s redistricting process is aimed to avoid such criticism.
“Republicans are pretty lucky we have this independent redistricting committee. Otherwise, we would have had three more Democratic districts, maybe five,” said Smith.
Orange County, as it has been in recent years, is one of the most important battleground counties in the country.
Republicans took two seats in the county by narrow margins. Young Kim, R-Calif., Smith said, appears to be in a stronger position than Republican Michelle Steel.
But major questions still exist. With delays in redistricting brought on by the pandemic, candidates are still weighing their options.
It remains unclear what challenge Porter — a major fundraiser and progressive star — will face.
“I think absolutely Katie Porter is going to face a stiffer test,” said Tab Berg, a political consultant working out of Sacramento. “Raising money is a great thing, but you’ve seen a handful of candidates raise a bunch of money and just win a third of the votes.”
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Added to Democrats' concerns are dwindling approval numbers for President Joe Biden. World events, including rising tensions with Russia as chaos emerges in Kazakhstan and the long-enduring pandemic, have added to the administration's challenges.
Former President Donald Trump’s tenure woes included the pandemic and sharp pandemic-related job losses as restaurants shut down. But despite his loss in the election, Republicans made up ground in the House while, improbably, the party lost control of the Senate.
What happens in the rest of the nation may, Smith said, may hinge on Biden’s approval ratings. But the golden state remains a stronghold for Democrats.
"As long as Biden is popular in California and Newsom is popular in California, there should be no major changes," said Smith.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to indicate that former President Donald Trump's challenges occurred during his tenure, not his midterm. (Jan. 9, 2021)