Redistricting fights rage with future of Congress at stake

Redistricting fights rage with future of Congress at stake
© The Hill illustration
Fierce and expensive battles over control of legislative chambers in more than a dozen states are raging as Democrats and Republicans fight for prizes that will influence the face of American politics for the next decade.
 
Strategists and observers who track state legislative battles say anxieties and tensions are already running at election-year levels, a reflection of the unusually high stakes in contests that immediately precede the decennial redistricting cycle.
 
The difference between just a handful of local elections across the country could mean a long-term shift in partisan control of Congress.
 
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Across the country, at least 18 legislative chambers in 13 states are narrowly controlled by one party or the other. Together, those 13 states account for 128 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, more than a quarter of the entire body. 
 
If one party makes big gains in state legislatures, they would have the power to use the decennial reapportionment and redistricting process to substantially alter the partisan makeup of Congress.
 
“The next decade of democracy is on the line in 2020,” said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), which spends money on state legislative elections.
 
The unusually high stakes were thrown into stark relief Tuesday, when a North Carolina court ordered the state legislature to redraw legislative district lines just a year before the 2020 elections. 
 
The old lines, the court ruled, improperly benefitted Republican candidates; the new lines will give Democrats a stronger chance to win back the seats they need to give them control of one or both chambers. 
 
If Democrats pick up five seats in the state Senate or six seats in the state House, they would have a say in how North Carolina’s congressional districts are drawn before the 2022 elections.
 
Today, Democrats hold just three of 13 U.S. House seats ahead of a special election Tuesday in the state's 3rd and 9th districts. That number would almost certainly grow if Democrats win control of one or both chambers next year.
 
“This benefits Democrats by opening up and increasing the number of competitive districts out there,” said Kelly Dietrich, who heads the National Democratic Training Committee, a group that promotes and coaches candidates for local office. 
 
Groups like the DLCC, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), labor unions and business interests are already pouring millions into several other states where legislative control is narrowly divided. 
 
Democrats must win back just a handful of seats to wrest total control from Republicans in states like Arizona and Texas. Republicans are only a few seats away from breaking total Democratic control in Colorado, Maine, Oregon and Nevada.
 
After Democratic gains in 2018, both parties are fighting for power in states like Minnesota, where Republicans hold the state Senate by a narrow two-seat margin, and Wisconsin, where Democrats need to win three seats to control the state Senate.
 
In New Hampshire, Republicans are two seats away from controlling the state Senate and 36 seats away from a majority in the state House, a chamber of 400 members that routinely swings on a political pendulum.
 
In all of those states, legislatures have the power to draw congressional and legislative district boundaries every decade.
 
Democrats “made some inroads in '18, definitely in the statewide offices and some on the legislative end,” said Chris Jankowski, a longtime Republican strategist who focuses on state races. “It really comes down to 2020. Can they topple the Republican lines in some of these states?”
 
The high stakes in states across the country are reminiscent of the 2010 elections, which became a mammoth Republican wave that swept the GOP to power and handed them control of the redistricting process.
 
That year, Jankowski led the RSLC’s Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, an effort to funnel money into previously overlooked legislative elections. The results gave Republicans the chance to cement a majority in the House that lasted until Democrats claimed control in 2018.
 
“You’re still seeing the effects of the 2010 redistricting,” said Tim Storey, an expert on state legislative elections who heads the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Democrats are fighting an uphill battle against the maps in many places.”
 
Democrats acknowledge they were unprepared for the state legislative battles that took place in 2010. In recent years, the party has closed the gap: The DLCC plans to spend more than $50 million this cycle, five times what they spent in 2010.
 
“In 2010, the Republican preparation met opportunity and they used their advantage to draw themselves a decade-long electoral advantage. We as Democrats in 2020 have an opportunity to even the scales,” Post said. “It’s the game, and it will set up an improved congressional map.”
 
 
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“The Democrats have a real opportunity to get back some of what was lost in 2010 and 2014. There’s really no scenario in which they get everything back on the state level. But they will have seats at the table in redistricting that they didn’t have in 2010 and the potential to gain more in subsequent cycles,” Jankowski said. 
 
But he added Trump will help in some states, especially where voters who backed the president in 2016 stayed home in 2018.
 
“The Trump effect is actually going to be positive in some areas, whereas it’s been entirely negative in '17, '18 and probably '19. The Trump voter will come out in some of these Southern states,” he said.
 
The next test of the public’s mood, and the first real battleground of the 2020 redistricting process, comes this year in November, when voters in Virginia pick their legislators. New court-ordered lines make Democrats the favorites to reclaim control of the state House of Delegates, where they need two seats for a majority, and the state Senate, where they need just one seat.
 
Democrats hold seven of 11 of Virginia’s seats in Congress. With complete control of the legislature, the party could draw their own maps that protect the three Democratic incumbents who ousted Republicans in the 2018 midterms. Their ability to win the legislature hinges on whether they can maintain the high levels of energy among voters who handed them those seats last year.
 
“The wave of '18 was not a fluke. The wave of '18 hasn’t subsided, it hasn’t decreased,” Dietrich said. “Focusing on the local level is important if we don’t want to be facing the same challenges we are now 10 years from now.”
 
Both Democrats and Republicans are keenly aware of what’s at play next year. At a recent conference of state legislators, Storey said the halls were abuzz over elections that are still more than a year away.
 
“There is tremendous amount of anticipation in terms of this election,” Storey said. Legislators “are as ready and in campaign mode as they’ve ever been this far out.”