Redistricting looms over 2010 landscape

Though two years in the future, the prospect of the next round redistricting is already rearing its ugly head for many actual and would-be members of Congress.

As they enter a key decision-making phase of the 2010 election cycle, the chance that they will encounter a very different map in 2012 could serve as both a deterrent and motivation to go for it.

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For some, 2010 might be their last best hope to win a given district before it is shored up by redistricting, while others might want to wait for the post-redistricting election, when the grass could be greener thanks to a friendly reapportionment process.

And because so many conservative-leaning districts are now represented by Democrats, the difference could be drastic.

“They have to be thinking: Could it affect their chances moving forward two years from now?” said Jonathan Williamson, a professor at Lycoming College who has studied the effects of redistricting on potential candidates. “In states that are losing or gaining seats especially, that’ll make a huge difference.”

Though many districts are in play, a few will be particularly important the cycle before redistricting, including those of freshman Democratic Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.), Suzanne Kosmas (Fla.), Ed Teague (N.M.), Betsy Markey (Colo.), John Adler (N.J.) and Dina Titus (Nev.). If Republicans are unable to recapture these districts next year, they could be much harder to win back in the future.

Republicans recently landed a candidate to run against Bright, in Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby, and against Kosmas, in Winter Park City Commissioner Karen Diebel.

Bright has one of the toughest districts in the country, but he also has lots of friends in the state capitol and plenty of more liberal territory just north of his district that could easily be drawn inside his borders.

Kosmas comes from the fast-growing Orlando/central Florida area, which is expected to gain a seat. A Republican-controlled redistricting process could shore up Kosmas in hopes of weakening fellow freshman Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and creating a new Republican-leaning seat.

One Florida Republican source said the time is now in Kosmas’s district.

“This district leans Republican; it’s friendly now,” the source said, noting that GOP former Rep. Tom Feeney essentially drew the district for himself. “This is as friendly a district as we can get.”

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report noted there is a flip side to Kosmas’s situation, though.

In Nevada, another freshman congresswoman, Titus, won a fast-changing swing district in Las Vegas-based Clark County and is a top GOP target. But Wasserman said that any would-be comers could also wait two years and pursue what is likely to be a new Republican- leaning district nearby.

“Why do that and get beaten up when there will be a new seat in Clark County in 2012?” he said. “That is something that could really discourage Republicans from taking on Dina Titus.”

Since redistricting often aims to shore up incumbents, it’s rare that it leads to better takeover opportunities. But that could be the case with members like Reps. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.), Peter King (R-N.Y.) or any number of vulnerable Illinois Republicans.

King and Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who are weighing Senate runs, could actually be encouraged to run for statewide office because of the upcoming changes to their tenuous districts, which are likely to be handled by Democrats.

And King isn’t the only New Yorker feeling the pressure of redistricting.

In perhaps the weirdest redistricting conundrum in the country, state Sen. Darrel Aubertine is a Democratic favorite to run in the upcoming special election for Army Secretary-designate Rep. John McHugh’s (R) upstate seat. But Aubertine could be risking his party’s control over redistricting by giving up his state Senate seat to run for Congress.

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The Democratic majority in the Empire State’s upper chamber was always tenuous, but Monday’s coup by 30 Republicans and two Democrats put everything in focus. The 30 remaining Democrats will be fighting hard to regain their majority status and, provided Democrats retain the governor’s mansion, control congressional redistricting.

Aubertine’s district is one of the most difficult they hold. So, in effect, he could actually help his party win more congressional seats by staying in the state Senate.

“Aubertine’s decision is more of a tug-of-war between state and national Democrats than a decision about what will happen in 2012,” Wasserman said. “The Democrats would like to keep this seat in the state Senate no matter what. They want total control of the process.”

Overall, history shows that the number of quality challengers who emerge to run for Congress declines as redistricting maps become more entrenched, with the final election before redistricting – 2010, in this case – having the fewest quality challengers.

Vanderbilt political science professor Marc Hetherington, who has also studied redistricting’s effect on candidates, said the upcoming election cycle could be something of an exception, given the number of Republican seats that have flipped Democratic the last two elections.

But, he said, controlling for other variables like the economy, the effect remains the same, and 2012 could be more attractive for many candidates.

“How much different are conditions going to be then?” he said. “We know the districts are going to be significantly different, and the incumbent just won two years ago. So why not wait?”