California’s Congressional Delegation is the largest in the country at 53 members. With that many members of Congress, other states usually harp about how California is able to secure anything it wants—but that feeling is more myth than reality because California’s Congressional delegation is sharply divided which undercuts California’s perceived strength.
Indeed a simple analysis of voting records shows that on bill after bill, California’s delegation is spilt. Why is that? Historically some have pointed to California’s relative size and geographic diversity as the reason. Indeed, over the years many viewed California as divided on a north-south axis—with the north voting Democratic and the south voting Republican. That construction of California has however been replaced by a new narrative in which there is a coastal-inland divide (with the coast voting Democratic and inland voting Republican).
California’s once pronounced north-south divide was keyed in part due to the heavy presence of the defense industry in Southern California. As military bases closed and defense spending declined throughout the 1990s, the Cold War faded and many conservative-leaning voters moved away. In addition, as defense declined as an economic driver within California, the entertainment and technology industries ballooned within the state. Coupled with this growth in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the state has been an influx of young, educated professionals that tend to lean toward liberal causes.
These economic changes arrived at the same time as powerful demographics changes within the state, altering the political landscape. While the out-migration of Republican-leaning voters helped push California to the left, the influx into California of Hispanics and Asians had an even greater effect. Between 1980 and 2000, California’s Hispanic and Asian communities each doubled as a share of the state’s population. Hispanics rose from 16 to 32 percent of the population while Asians rose from 5 to 11 percent. Indeed, California became a majority minority state after the 2000 census, and today non-Hispanic whites are less than 40 percent of the state’s population.
More than three-quarters of Californians now live in the state’s coastal counties, mostly in the densely-populated San Francisco Bay Area and in the sprawling communities from Los Angeles to San Diego. As noted, these voters lean more democratic and less conservative. As a consequence of these changes, the Democratic share of the California vote has climbed in every presidential election since 1992 because every region within the state except the interior has become more Democratic.
The impact of this realignment in California can be seen by looking at recent struggles over water legislation that would impact the drought. In 2014, both the House and Senate passed legislation that would address the drought occurring in California. The House bill (H.R.3964) and the Senate bill (S.601) both had provisions that would deliver more water south through the bay delta from Northern California to both the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles. In years past it is likely that this legislation would have been hotly contested on strictly geographic grounds: Northern Californians opposed to sending water south. While certainly that dynamic played out to some extent, the fundamental shifts in California which have been outlined above, emerged in clear relief. The House floor discussion was not a battle between House Members defending their respective constituents based on a geographic rivalry, instead it was an ideological battle. Rather than the House floor debate being based on geographic grounds, the debate was focused on ideological issues around those perceived to be for or against the environment from one viewpoint, or those for or against people over fish. When it came time to vote on the legislation, Northern California Republican officeholders Tom McClintock and Doug LaMalfa voted in favor of the bill which would send more water from north to south, while only 6 of the 28 members of Congress whose districts lie south of Tehachapi Mountains (Royce, Calvert, Hunter, Issa, Rohrbacher, McKeon and Campbell) voted in favor of the bill.
After the House bill passed and the Senate moved its bill, there was an effort to reconcile the differences between those bills. We can see the shifting alignment of interests even more clearly when examining the controversy surrounding this process. As the negotiations came to a conclusion, press leaks began to emerge and some saw the negotiation as too aggressively favoring delivery of water south through the delta which might compromise the environment and Northern California fish interests. In years past that sort of deal would seem to have not bothered water interests in both Los Angeles and in the Central Valley. Yet once word became public that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which represents nearly 20 million people, was involved, board members for the water agency cited concern about the legislation and specifically the environmental impacts that legislation might have.