State Watch

GOP sees advantage as redistricting hits half-way point

Republicans appear to be headed for substantial gains in next year’s midterm elections, even before many candidates formally declare their plans, as state legislatures and commissions in more than half the U.S. states have proposed or finalized new congressional district lines.

Of those 27 states, a dozen have completed the decennial redistricting process. An additional six do not need to draw boundary lines because they elect a single member in an at-large district.

Those states that have finished or are making progress toward final maps give early hints at the advantages each party has taken as they prepare to battle for control of Congress. 

Republicans appear poised to gain at least one U.S. House seat through the redistricting process in Georgia, Montana, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. And Ohio legislators are contemplating a map that would shift a delegation currently made up of 12 Republicans and four Democrats to one that would favor 13 Republicans and just two Democrats. 

The GOP will lose a seat in West Virginia, where the all-Republican congressional delegation will fall from three members to two.

In some cases, Republican maps that appear to favor more Democratic candidates actually strengthen the GOP’s hold on a delegation. In Texas, new maps approved by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) would improve Democratic chances in five congressional districts, and Republican odds in only two seats — but at the expense of five districts that were competitive under old map lines, effectively cementing Republican control of the delegation for a decade to come.

“Republicans are pushing maps that double down on the gerrymandering of the last decade. They are clearly designed to lock in power. Their maps dilute the voting power of communities of color, take competitive seats off the board and shore up incumbents,” said Kelly Ward, who heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, her party’s chief coordinating outlet. “They want a durable House map that they control for the decade. That is their goal. That is their stated goal.” 

But Democrats have executed their own power plays in states where they hold control of the mapmaking process. 

In Oregon, Democrats divided their base voters in Portland across three districts, two of which cross the Cascade Mountains, to give themselves an advantage in five of six U.S. House districts. In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) is considering a legislature-approved map that would cost the GOP two seats. 

The Maryland legislature, controlled by a supermajority of Democratic members, is considering a plan that would target the state’s lone Republican member of Congress, Rep. Andy Harris (R) — a decade after another gerrymander carved up longtime Rep. Roscoe Bartlett’s (R) district. 

A decade after Republicans seized control of the redistricting process in most states for the first time in modern history, and after Democrats advanced their own gerrymandered maps in states like Maryland and Illinois, legislators are taking fewer risks with aggressive and visually disruptive map lines, some watchdogs said.

“The extreme achievements in partisan gerrymandering 10 years ago are reduced this year,” said Sam Wang, who directs the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which monitors and grades remapping proposals. “If the measure is raw power, then things are turning out less bad than expected.”

That does not mean either party is ceding ground in states where they find themselves in the minority. And those states where redistricting is finalized are already offering the real preview of what is to come — a barrage of lawsuits that will land most states in court.

In Republican-leaning states, legislators have prepared for the inevitable litigation.

“They’re going to get sued no matter what, and that’s what we’ve told them. It’s not preventing yourself from being sued, that’s inevitable,” said Adam Kincaid, who heads the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the Republican clearinghouse for remapping efforts. “The most important thing to stand up in court is to just listen to your lawyers.”

Oregon Republicans have already brought a lawsuit challenging the Democratic plan. North Carolina Democrats have sued over the Republican-backed map that splits Greensboro, dividing Rep. Kathy Manning’s (D) district among Republican-leaning seats.

“If the Republicans would draw fair maps that follow the law, we wouldn’t have to sue them. And they are not doing that. They are drawing illegal maps for their own power,” Ward said. “I think we’re going to have to sue them in the states that they control, because the maps are unfair and illegal.” 

Democrats did not even wait for legislators to propose maps before they filed suit in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Louisiana — states where both Democrats and Republicans have a stake in the redistricting process, where both sides anticipate gridlock that courts will have to resolve. 

Several states that will send the largest delegations to Congress are still debating key proposals — or have yet to release any proposals at all. 

California’s independent redistricting commission, tasked with eliminating a seat for the first time in the state’s history, offered an initial proposal this week that would give Democrats a big advantage in 38 of the state’s 52 districts, and a distinct advantage in five more districts, a likely win for Democrats. That initial map is likely to undergo substantial changes in the coming weeks. 

Democrats are likely to make a play for more seats in New York, while Florida Republicans are likely to press their advantage in a state where Republican registered voters now outnumber Democrats for the first time. Commissions in Virginia and Washington State are hammering out proposals that could affect the balance of power in Congress for the next decade.

The district lines that have been enacted, and those have yet to be formally approved, are all but certain to significantly reduce one caucus in Congress: those who hold competitive seats. In most states where one party controls the remapping process, competitive seats have been drawn to more clearly side with one party or the other.

“There’s already not that much competition because of the way voters have sorted themselves geographically, and what gerrymandering has done is taken the rest of it off the table,” Princeton’s Wang said. “Giving Democrats more power in Illinois does nothing to protect the rights of Republicans in Texas. A lot of these battles are focused on raw power instead of competitiveness.” 

Legislators are racing against the clock to finalize boundary lines after a delay in the U.S. census data that governs the process forced states to begin their remapping exercises later than planned. In some cases, that delay has helped expedite new map lines.

“The census delay made it a lot easier for legislative leadership to move these maps faster,” Kincaid said. “There has been less time for folks in state capitals to adjust the maps when they’ve been proposed by legislative leadership.”

Tags Andy Harris Greg Abbott

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