Early redistricting plans show GOP retrenching for long haul
When Texas Republicans rolled out a proposal for congressional district lines that would likely give their party a nearly two-to-one edge for the next decade, a similar thought struck both Democrats and anti-gerrymandering advocates: It could have been worse.
The same thought occurred to those keeping a close eye on proposed maps in other red states, like Georgia and Indiana, that have begun work on the decennial redistricting process. Though many states have yet to begin fashioning their maps, Republicans in states where they control all the levers of government appear to be playing a cautious game.
“Republicans are going for certainty over risky maximization,” said Doug Spencer, a redistricting and election law expert at the University of Colorado Law School. “I don’t know that I would have predicted that, to be honest, going into the cycle.”
The goal, insiders and observers say, is to shore up as many potentially vulnerable Republican incumbents as possible for as long as possible, a strategy that would create a more durable base of representatives in Congress from which to grow a more lasting majority.
Republican legislators will target Democratic incumbents where possible — a first draft of proposed maps in Georgia put Rep. Lucy McBath (D) into what appears to be a Republican-leaning district — but they will avoid the kind of overreach that marked earlier redistricting efforts, ambitious plans that backfired later as district populations changed.
“Redistricting is a lot like trench warfare,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the group that helps coordinate the GOP’s remapping strategy. “You take your vulnerable incumbents off the board, and then you go on offense.”
That overreach cost Republicans in the last decade. After aggressive redistricting proposals advanced before the 2012 elections, courts required states like Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina to redraw their maps in the middle of the decade, costing Republicans seats — and, in 2018, their majority in the House.
“There’s a good argument to be made that without those mid-decade redistricting [requirements], Republicans would have taken the majority in 2020,” said J. Miles Coleman, a redistricting expert and associate editor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It shows you how fragile the Democrats’ majority is right now, and it speaks to why Republicans feel like they can play it a bit more safe.”
Texas is illustrative of the Republican strategy: Heading into the 2020 elections, Republicans controlled 23 of 36 Texas congressional districts. But Republicans in nine of those districts — Reps. Dan Crenshaw (R), Ron Wright (R), Michael McCaul (R), Chip Roy (R), Troy Nehls (R), Tony Gonzales (R), Beth Duyne (R), Roger Williams (R) and John Carter (R) — won by margins of less than 10 percentage points.
On the Democratic side, Reps. Lizzie Fletcher (D) and Colin Allred (D), both of whom won Republican seats in the 2018 midterms, survived close challenges to win second terms.
The new proposed maps effectively protect both Fletcher and Allred from future Republican challenges — but they also shore up all nine of those close-call Republicans into much safer seats. Texas gained two new seats in the decennial reapportionment process, one of which was drawn as a Republican stronghold in the Houston exurbs and one as a Democratic bastion in Austin.
“These maps like Texas show that there’s more that goes into this than just trying to maximize the number of seats that you can win,” Coleman said.
Republicans are still benefitting from favorable maps they drew themselves after the 2010 midterm elections, which delivered what then-President Obama called a “thumping” to his party. Anti-gerrymandering experts said that has allowed Republicans to lock in those gains for another decade, cognizant of the demographic and political changes that have taken place over the preceding ten years.
“Republicans already have strong partisan gerrymanders in place, so to stretch those gerrymanders further would be difficult even to start from,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who has served as a redistricting specialist in several court cases. “The suburbs have been trending more Democratic over the last six years or so, and rural areas have become more reliably Republican.”
“Those suburban districts were part of the coalition that undergirded Republican majorities in Congress and state legislatures. Now that those areas are becoming more diverse both in terms of racial and ethnic diversity and also their political leanings, those suburban and exurban areas aren’t as reliably Republican anymore,” he said.
Democrats are by no means happy with the maps that have come out of Texas and other states, in spite of new protections they add for some newer incumbents. In a statement, Kelly Burton, who heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, accused Republicans of exorcising any chance at competitive seats in future elections.
“The Census Data released confirmed that the country is getting more diverse and less rural. That rightfully scares Republicans, which is why they are not only doubling down on their egregious gerrymanders from ten years ago, but also adding an extra sharp kick in the face of democracy, eliminating all of the competitive or toss up seats,” Burton said. “Predetermining election outcomes for the next decade is directly at odds with the central tenet of American democracy, election results that reflect the will of the voters.”
Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, called the Republican moves “defensive gerrymanders,” meant to staunch the bleeding Republicans have experienced in suburban areas in recent years.
“Republicans in places like Texas and Georgia are clearly afraid of the suburbs and their voters — both because the suburbs have gotten more diverse and because Republicans seem to be worried that they may not get back the white suburban voters who have left them in recent years,” Li said. “If you are worried about having to neutralize a sizable block of voters then that eliminates your maneuverability and the number of offensive moves you can make.”
Republicans in other states have avoided dramatic shifts that could tempt courts to intervene. In Indiana, the legislature has proposed a map that leaves Rep. Frank Mrvan’s (D) Gary-based seat largely alone, while shoring up a district held by Rep. Victoria Spartz (R). In Nebraska, the legislature avoided tinkering with an Omaha-based swing district now held by Rep. Don Bacon (R), who ousted a sitting Democrat.
Insiders cautioned that early drafts are far from final, and that some states could still take more aggressive action against Democratic incumbents. The Georgia map, proposed by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (R) and state Sen. John Kennedy (R), is seen as an opening bid that is likely to change substantially, those with knowledge of the process said.
But the early Republican moves are made with an eye toward longer-term stability, against the background of fast-growing urban and suburban areas that tilt more heavily toward Democrats.
“This is about 10 year maps. This is about a durable majority. It’s not about creating a situation where you can take the House in ’22, maybe hold it in ’24, but it’s gone again in ’26 or ’28,” Kincaid said. “Republicans are being intentional in the states about not overreaching, being smart, creating opportunities to go on offense. Every dollar we spend on defense is a dollar wasted if we can go on offense somewhere else.”
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