Democrats make legislative gains over GOP in redistricting battle

Two years before state legislatures begin the high-stakes process of redrawing congressional district boundaries, Democrats made significant inroads in the midterm elections to guarantee themselves at least some say in how those lines are drawn in many states.

But, in a sign of just how far Democrats fell during Republican wave elections in 2010 and 2014, the GOP still controls the redistricting process for nearly twice the number of House districts as Democrats.

If the redistricting process were to happen today, Republicans would be in complete control of how district lines are drawn in 17 states, which hold a combined 163 seats in the House of Representatives. Democrats would be in complete control of just 10 states, accounting for 83 seats.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Round one of the 2020 redistricting conversation has gone to the Republicans in our opinion,” said Matt Walter, who heads the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group dedicated to electing Republicans at the state and local level.

Democrats counter that the first round does not decide the entire match. There are three elections yet to come — four states hold legislative elections in 2019, most states hold legislative elections in 2020 and two states elect legislators in 2021 — before the redistricting cycle truly begins.

“It was always about ’18 plus ’20, like a one-two punch over the two cycles,” said Kelly Ward, who runs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an outfit headed by former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderEric Holder says Trump is subject to prosecution after leaving office Eric Holder: Democrats 'have to understand' that 'borders mean something' Trump lawyers ask judge to toss out Dems' tax return lawsuit MORE.

The most consequential gains for Democrats this year came in New York, where the party now controls all levers of state government after winning a majority in the state Senate. Democrats hold 21 of the state’s 27 congressional districts after picking up three seats this year, and the Democratic-led legislature could redraw districts to solidify those gains or expand into GOP-held territory.

In Illinois, Democrats will control the redistricting process once Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker (D) is sworn into office. Democrats already control 13 of 18 House seats there, but Reps. Mike BostMichael (Mike) J. BostMORE (R) and Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisGroups push lawmakers for hearings on voting machine security House Democrats targeting six more Trump districts for 2020 House Democrats target 2020 GOP incumbents in new ad MORE (R) both escaped with narrow wins and may find themselves the target of Democratic map-makers in the future.

Democrats also made significant gains in the Texas legislature, where Republicans maintain control. If Democrats maintain or grow their minorities in the 2020 elections, the party would at least be able to filibuster Republican-drawn maps, forcing a compromise in a state expected to add two or three seats in the next round of reapportionment.

“The [Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee] and state Democrats secured huge gains in critical redistricting states and we’re already working to elect more state Democrats and reclaim more chambers in 2019 and 2020,” said Jessica Post, the DLCC’s executive director.

Republican-led legislatures will draw lines in four states where a Democrat holds the governor’s mansion, and Democrats will draw boundaries in one state, New Hampshire, where a Republican governor must sign off. Only one state, Minnesota, has a legislature in which Democrats hold one chamber and Republicans the other.

In 33 states, the responsibility for drawing congressional district lines lies with state legislatures. Ten states give independent or bipartisan commissions the power to draw district lines. The remaining seven states do not need to draw district lines because they have only one representative in Congress, elected statewide.

The final verdicts on which party controls redistricting will come during legislative and gubernatorial elections in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Once those races are settled and the U.S. Census Bureau formally reapportions House seats based on the results of the 2020 census, legislators in those states will begin the increasingly contentious phase of drawing new boundaries. 

The battleground is likely to shift because of population changes, too.

Some projections suggest Rhode Island may lose a seat, dropping it into the category of single-district states. Montana may gain a second seat, which would allow legislators to draw district lines for the first time since 1982.

Many of the states where redistricting is completely controlled by one party are already so dominated by that side that big gains are not possible. 

Republicans control the process in West Virginia, Arkansas and Nebraska, where the GOP already holds every seat in Congress. Democrats have control in Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Mexico, where they already hold every House seat. 

States like South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, where Republicans hold total control, and Nevada and Oregon, where Democrats run the show, have districts drawn in such a way that the minority party controls only a minimal number of seats that could not be made more competitive.

The Republican edge is far lower than it was in the last round of redistricting. In 2012, the GOP controlled the redrawing process in 22 states that accounted for 224 seats, while Democrats drew maps in nine states that sent 56 members to Congress.

The Republican advantage has been diminished in part because Democrats won key governorships this year in Kansas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and last year in Virginia. In those states, the Democratic governors could veto a Republican-drawn map, forcing a compromise or, in some cases, challenge a map drawn by courts.

“When you look at the redistricting process, you have to look at it in terms of all the people who are at the table. To elect a governor is a very important part of that,” Ward said.

Ten states now hand power to draw district lines to an independent or bipartisan commission, four more than during the last round of redistricting. Voters in Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and Utah approved those commissions this year. Commissions will draw boundaries in 10 states that send a combined 129 members to Congress.

Proponents of redistricting reform in other states are considering advancing their own ballot measures, in places like Arkansas and Oregon, ahead of the next round of redistricting.

Strategists on both sides say the renewed focus on the redistricting process has meant an unprecedented injection of money into once-sleepy legislative contests. 

Groups like the Republican State Leadership Committee and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee shattered spending records this year, and more money is likely to pour into those down-ballot contests ahead of legislative contests in 2019 and 2020.

“The Democrats have caught up and have expanded the conversation surrounding redistricting. You have multiple groups focused on it spending tens of millions of dollars,” Walter said. “They’re going to in all likelihood escalate their efforts, escalate their rhetoric, escalate the spending.”