California is huge — it has 39.5 million residents, making it the largest state in the U.S. by population. As a result, it has by far the most House members — 53 in total. Texas, by comparison, is the second-most-populous state and only has 36 representatives. So it’s not necessarily surprising that California is sending more Democrats to Congress than is any other state — 46 Democratic representatives in the new Congress will be from California. Still, since the end of World War II, the House’s majority party has never had this large a share of its membership come from a single state.
The state that had the most members in a party’s caucus in a given year has always, of course, been one of the more populous states, like New York, Pennsylvania or Texas. But those large states hold a bigger share of the caucus when they’re dominated by a single party, like California is now. For instance, in the 1946 election, Texas elected Democrats to all 21 of its House seats, which amounted to 11 percent of all House Democrats; the party was in the minority that year after a GOP wave. And New York, which had the most representatives before California took over, sometimes had more seats than any other state in both parties’ caucuses, as it did in 1948 and 1960. Back when California was less of a single-party state, it occasionally pulled off the same feat, including as recently as 2006, when it led the Democratic caucus and tied Texas for the lead in the GOP caucus.
Nearly 20 percent of the incoming Democratic caucus will hail from California, and using data primarily from Gary Jacobson’s data set on House elections from 1946 to 2014, I found that no state has ever been responsible for a larger percentage of the majority party’s House caucus during the post-World War II period.14
That said, California’s share of the Democratic caucus has been even larger than it is now — 20.7 percent after 2014 and 20.1 percent after 2016. The catch is that Republicans won the majority in both of those elections, which meant that even though California represented a significant share of the Democratic caucus, the state’s representatives had relatively little power.
In the Republican delegation, Texas has held the most seats since 2004 (counting 2006, when it tied with California at 9.4 percent) — and it leads the party’s caucus again this year with 11.5 percent of the GOP’s House seats.
From 1970 to 2002, California also had — or tied for — the largest share of the GOP caucus. As recently as 1992, California had a larger share of the Republican caucus than the Democratic one, even though Democrats held more seats in the state. But the GOP’s position in California has weakened since the early 1990s, a trend often blamed on Proposition 187, which in 1994 sought to, among other things, eliminate public services to illegal immigrants and require state employees to report illegal immigrants to federal authorities. The theory is that this ballot measure turned California’s sizable Hispanic population away from the Republican Party, which campaigned in support of the proposition, and drove those voters into the arms of the Democratic Party. Now the California GOP seems almost like an endangered species, a development punctuated by the complete wipeout of Republican members from Orange County — a traditional home of California conservatism — in the midterm election.
Given the size of California’s congressional delegation, it will be interesting to see what issues California Democrats pursue — especially as relates to President Trump. Several members of the state’s delegation are in line to take over key leadership positions in the House, which would give them more power to take on the president, if they choose. For example, Rep. Adam Schiff, the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, will get to determine whether and how the House is involved in investigations related to Russian interference in the 2016 election, and he just raised eyebrows by saying that the president could face jail time. Rep. Maxine Waters will head the Financial Services Committee, where she wants to investigate the Trump Organization’s financing. Many commentators have also suggested that Waters could pursue the president’s still-unreleased tax returns. Additionally, one lower-profile Californian slated to be a committee head — Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who is in line to lead the House Administration Committee — may be thrust into the national spotlight. Uncertainty surrounding the outcome in North Carolina’s 9th District could lead to a congressional investigation, which Lofgren’s committee would spearhead. Rep. Mark Takano is seeking to chair the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and if he succeeds, he’d be the fourth potential Democratic committee chair from the state (that we know of).
For Pelosi, the sizable California delegation could boost her bid to become House speaker again — after all, she faces dissent within the Democratic ranks from a faction looking to spoil her efforts to remain head of the party. Matthew Green, a political science professor at Catholic University, told me that in leadership elections, “lawmakers are more likely to vote for candidates who are elected from their state.” So we might expect most California Democrats to back Pelosi. Still, there is a fairly wide ideological range among the returning California Democrats, and most of the incoming freshmen won seats in battleground races. In fact, one freshman, Gil Cisneros, signed a letter opposing Pelosi’s candidacy for House speaker. So if some new members from previously Republican districts break against Pelosi in her bid for speaker, that would eat into her base of home-state support. However, at this stage, only Cisneros has openly demonstrated opposition and most other California representatives have expressed support.
California Democrats could be too politically diverse to agree on many legislative priorities, but the group may be able to generate momentum on a few specific issues. “You might see a little more action on climate change and immigration that specifically have to do with where California has really pushed back against the Trump administration,” said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. Given the federal-state conflict that has defined the relationship between the president and California in recent years, it would make sense that California Democrats would push hard on environmental issues, even if a Republican Senate and president mean that those initiatives have little chance of becoming law.