State Watch

Arkansas legislature splits Little Rock in move that guarantees GOP seats

The Arkansas state legislature has approved new congressional district boundary lines that divide the state’s largest city into three pieces in a move that all but guarantees Republicans will maintain an insurmountable advantage through the next decade.

The map, sent Thursday to Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), divides Little Rock’s Pulaski County between districts held by Reps. French Hill (R), Bruce Westerman (R) and Rick Crawford (R). The other district that does not touch Little Rock, held by Rep. Steve Womack (R), is centered around Fayetteville.

“It makes sense to split the most populous county that also happens to be at the center of the state, which will help to give more of a voice to our most populous counties,” said state Sen. Ben Gilmore (R), who proposed his own map that divided Pulaski County among several districts. “Their voice is actually getting stronger, living in a county that has three different members of Congress.”

Democrats cried foul: Pulaski County is one of only eight counties in Arkansas that favored President Biden over former President Trump in 2020. Biden won just shy of 60 percent of the vote there.

“On the surface, it’s pure gerrymandering. They took high minority populations and split them. They have diluted the overall impact of the minority vote by doing this,” said state Sen. Keith Ingram (D), the Senate minority leader. “It is very curious that they would vote to split Pulaski County three ways.”

The new maps ensure that Republicans will hold all four U.S. House seats from Arkansas for the next decade. Hill was the only Arkansas incumbent who faced a prominent challenger in the 2020 elections, in a race he won by 11 percentage points. The new maps remove thousands of Democratic voters in Little Rock from his district and distribute them between Westerman’s and Crawford’s districts.

Republicans acknowledged their move to lock in the gains they made over the last decade, pointing to a Supreme Court precedent that labels the redistricting process inherently political.

“It was the intent of the legislature to look at political breakdowns of the county and to make sure that we drew seats that our party could hold going forward. That’s not something we’re trying to hide, this is a political process,” Gilmore said. “It is not our goal to gerrymander, it is our goal to draw districts that make sense.”

Splitting a major city between several districts is an emerging trend in legislatures working to redraw boundary lines this year. In Oregon, Democratic legislators split liberal Portland between three districts that are virtually certain to send Democrats to Congress; in Tennessee, Republicans are considering dividing Nashville into multiple seats in a bid to target Rep. Jim Cooper (D) for defeat.

In the process, legislators are going where their predecessors dare not tread: Pulaski County has not been divided between multiple districts in any decade since the modern redistricting process began in the 1960s.

There is another new precedent taking place in Arkansas this year: It is the first time in which Republicans, not Democrats, have held control of the redistricting process since the Civil War.

“This is the first time in at least 140 years that Republicans have drawn these maps,” Gilmore said. “Hopefully we can fix the gerrymander of the last 140 years.”

Arkansas was one of the last Southern states to undergo the regionwide shift of ancestral Democratic voters moving to the Republican Party. When he ran for president in 2008, former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) touted the fact that he had won election in a state in which 86 percent of elected officials were Democrats; that is no longer the case.

At the turn of the century, Democrats held three of the state’s four seats in Congress — all but the Fayetteville-based seat, now held by Sen. John Boozman (R).

But the 2010 midterm elections devastated Democrats across the South. Then-Reps. Marion Berry (D) and Vic Snyder (D) retired, replaced by Crawford and then-Rep. Tim Griffin (R). Two years later, Rep. Mike Ross (D) quit, and then-Rep. Tom Cotton (R) easily won his seat.

The sea change is mirrored in the state legislature, where Democrats hold just seven of 35 state Senate seats and 24 of 100 seats in the state House.

Hutchinson, who will leave office next year after two terms, has not said whether he will sign the Republican-approved maps. But Democrats are realistic about their chances of reclaiming a seat in Congress under the new lines.

“It’d be very difficult, very difficult the way these are drawn,” Ingram said. 

But he held out hope for intervention from groups like the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the organization dedicated to advocating for friendlier maps run by former Attorney General Eric Holder. 

“National groups are already reviewing the maps,” Ingram said. “I think there’s a strong possibility that a lawsuit will take place, and we’ll just see what happens.”

Tags Asa Hutchinson Bruce Westerman Donald Trump Eric Holder French Hill Jim Cooper Joe Biden John Boozman Rick Crawford Steve Womack Tim Griffin Tom Cotton

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