Meet California’s political ‘hot potato’ districts

Three toss-up congressional races could determine which party wins control of the House.

A photo of a wall of posters with women on them encouraging voting.

Chris Mariscotti is a fourth-generation restaurant owner; his family has been in the business for nearly 100 years. The Mariscotti family opened its Madera, California location of The Vineyard almost 45 years ago.

Madera is an agricultural community – but not in the way you might think.

“It is not romantic agriculture. This is not Napa Valley,” said Mariscotti. “The Central Valley is kind of a poor stepchild to the rest of the state of California.”

In order to get an updated count on the country’s population, the U.S. Constitution requires a federal census every 10 years. California uses that census data to redraw the Congressional, State Senate, State Assembly and State Board of Equalization districts based on population changes. Following the 2020 census, California lost a congressional district because of its slowing population growth. As a result, the Democratic House lost a seat and certain towns, like Madera, were redistricted.

Democrats will lose their narrow hold on the House majority if the GOP picks up five seats in the Nov. 8 midterm elections. Due to the time difference, all eyes will be on California, as those votes are tallied last.

Three of those seats could be filled by three of California’s “toss up” contests: races between a Democratic and Republican candidate in new districts where it’s anyone’s game. This year, those are California districts 13, 22 and 27, located in the northern central valley, southern central valley and the San Gabriel Mountain foothills. Unlike some states, California’s congressional districts are drawn by a third-party panel, as opposed to state lawmakers. This means California gained some of the highest number of competitive races in the country.

Madera is in one of those districts. Democrat Jim Costa ends his nearly decade-long run as congressman for Madera and its surrounding area. This year, Democrat Adam Gray and Republican John Duarte are both running for the position.

Mariscotti, an Independent, fears that the redistricting could change the voter demographic.

“New Republicans scare me,” explained Mariscotti, “I have nothing against fiscally responsible, small government Republicans. I’m against hate as a party platform. And that seems to be driving the party today.”

Political Analyst and Senior Editor at The Cook Political Report, David Wasserman, considers Mariscotti’s district a Democrat-leaning but culturally conservative area where both parties favor their own candidates.

“[Adam] Gray differentiates himself from the coastal Democrats. He’s a blue dog Democrat with pragmatic values,” said Wasserman.

By comparison, GOP candidate John Duarte is a Central Valley native and local farmer whose background is a stark contrast from Gray’s political career in Sacramento, Wasserman said.

According to Mariscotti, Madera faces two main issues: a lack of water and a struggling economy. Areas like Madera are disproportionately affected by climate change with extreme heat, drought and wildfires. As an agricultural area, Madera relies on oil and gas to get around the sprawling, rural area. But with the nation’s inability to steady inflation rates combined with the state’s focus on reducing air pollution, California gas prices continue to surge.

Mariscotti sees these intricate problems looming larger than a campaign platform; he wants a candidate who understands that.

For those reasons, Mariscotti doubts he’ll vote for Duarte.

“I think his answers are pretty simplistic,” said Mariscotti. “His whole campaign says he’ll lower taxes and give us more water. I don’t think things are that easy. He gives simple answers to complex questions.”

But are Mariscotti’s beliefs felt district wide? Wasserman thinks it’s still too close to tell.

“We saw Biden carry that area by 11 points in 2020, but just a year later, Gavin Newsom lost his recall election in that district by one point,” he explained.

District 27 seems to offer an equally mystifying forecast, but Emiliana Guereca, Executive Director of the Women’s March Foundation, is hoping to change that.

She stands in front of a wall covered with female empowerment posters, urging onlookers to vote. “We do have the power to change, state by state,” she said, gesturing to the wall behind her. “But it’s going to take all of us.”

Guereca’s paramount priority is appointing policy makers who support reproductive rights. But she worries that District 27′s Democratic candidate Christy Smith may have an uphill battle.

“District 27 has a huge Latino population, which normally votes blue. But Mike Garcia is the Republican candidate. [Smith] needs the Latino vote, but with Garcia running, it’s hard to say if she’ll get it,” said Guereca. Mike Garcia is Latino and defeated Smith in 2020.

But since redistricting, District 27 now includes cities like Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster – areas that Wasserman believes are more left-leaning.

“This would be a tough district for a Republican candidate to win under these new lines,” he said. “The real political hot potato, pretty much for the last decade, is California District 22″.

District 22′s GOP incumbent David Valadao struggles with Republican voters as redistricting adds more blue areas like Kings County and Bakersfield. Additionally, Valadao estranged much of his party after backing former President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

“He actually continues to attract Democrats,” explained Wasserman. “A Trump endorsement at this point would then alienate those voters”.

Similar to Madera, District 22 is an agriculturally focused area that struggles with water issues. Redistricting brought new priorities for policymakers. District 22 is now home to Kings County, where nearly 6% of the population are veterans, according to the 2020 Census.

In March 2022, Valadao voted to support legislation that addresses healthcare for veterans, specifically those exposed to toxic chemicals like burn pits and herbicides. He has also made veteran support a major campaign platform, a move likely to garner him more support in the polls.

For Mariscotti, the fate of his community lies in the ballots of this election.

“I’m tired of policymakers playing a big political and cultural agenda,” said Mariscotti, “My biggest fear is that crazy anti-science election deniers will take over this country.”