When it comes to redistricting, it’s been a good month for Democrats.
In Illinois, Democrats drew a map that, in a best-case scenario, could net President Obama’s party five seats in his home state. In California, a nonpartisan commission proposed a map that would undo the tidy incumbent-protection scheme that ensured Republicans would be relegated to a minority—but guaranteed most GOP lawmakers seats for life. The proposed map, while putting members of both parties at risk, should net Democrats several seats. Those developments prompted some rethinking of the early conventional wisdom that Republicans will hold a huge advantage in the redistricting process, thanks to their control of the map-drawing process in many key states.
But the flurry of good news for Democrats masks one underlying reality: For Republicans, the name of the redistricting game has been to consolidate historic gains they made in 2010. In most states, that means the focus is on keeping the seats they’ve got rather than grabbing for more. And no wonder: Republicans currently hold 240 House seats—a higher number than any time since 1946.
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As my colleague David Wasserman pointed out in his indispensible redistricting guide, of the 66 House Republicans who received less than 55 percent of the vote in 2010, almost half are from states where Republicans completely control the process.
That means that many of the Republican congressmen viewed as vulnerable could find themselves in safer seats next year. While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting the 13 Republicans in districts that voted Democratic in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, that list will be badly outdated when redistricting is complete.
A good example of the shift in the GOP’s thinking on redistricting is Pennsylvania. In 2002, when Republicans controlled the process, they attempted to draw as many winnable seats as possible. It backfired badly when Democrats picked up many of the GOP-held competitive seats—and control of Congress—in 2006.
This time around, the GOP legislature is focused on conserving the party’s gains, not expanding beyond its control.
The battleground suburban Philadelphia districts of GOP Reps. Jim Gerlach, Mike Fitzpatrick, and Pat Meehan all are likely to cede parts of their districts closest to Philadelphia to city Democratic Reps. Robert Brady and Chaka Fattah. The result could be slightly safer seats for the suburban Republicans—possibly enough to take districts that have been perennial targets for Democrats off the table.
Rep. Lou Barletta, one of the 13 Republicans representing a district Kerry carried, may see the Democratic stronghold of Scranton moved from his district and put into the district of Democratic Rep. Tim Holden. It wouldn’t guarantee him re-election, but that would markedly improve his chances.
A favorable redraw in the Keystone State could “protect” up to four Republican seats and the elimination of one Democrat’s district—likely either Rep. Jason Altmire or Mark Critz.
That’s just the most telling example of how Republicans can benefit themselves even when they’re not focused on drawing Democrats out of Congress. Others include:
Republicans passed a map giving Reps. Blake Farenthold and Francisco (Quico) Canseco much friendlier territory. Farenthold’s district gave GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona 46 percent of the vote in 2008; under the new map, he’d be representing a 59 percent McCain district. Canseco’s battleground seat gets four points more favorable for Republicans.
Republicans fortified the swing seat of GOP Reps. Dan Benishek and Thaddeus McCotter and removed Calhoun County from GOP Rep. Tim Walberg’s district, the home base of his potential Democratic challenger, former Rep. Mark Schauer.
A proposed Republican map in Minnesota turns one of the most vulnerable Republicans, Rep. Chip Cravaack,into one of the safest in the state. The new district would have given McCain 54 percent of the vote; the old one 46 percent. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the plan, but Cravaack has a good chance of benefiting in the redistricting.
A GOP map, which is expected to pass, makes the district of freshman Rep. Sean Duffy, one of 13 Republicans currently representing territory that Obama and Kerry won, about three points more Republican, while also making Democratic Rep. Ron Kind’s seat much safer. To protect both incumbents, many voters will be shifted to new representatives—about 150,000 will be moved out of Duffy’s district and about 180,000 will be moved in.
Rep. Steve Stivers, who represents one of the most competitive districts in the country, could see some college student-dominated precincts moved to a more safely GOP seat. Rep. Steve Chabot, who lost reelection in 2008, will have less to worry about, with parts of House Speaker John Boehner’s safely GOP district an obvious option to shore him up.
Even though Republicans don’t control the line-drawing, they could see two of their most vulnerable members placed in safer situations. GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, whose district needs to be downsized, could see the liberal stronghold of Olympia drawn into the seat of Democratic Rep. Adam Smith. And Rep. Dave Reichert, a perennial Democratic target, could see some of his Democratic-leaning seat drawn into a new 10th District, improving his chances for reelection.
Outside of Illinois, Democrats have few opportunities to unilaterally protect their own. A handful of members, like Holden and Kind, will be assisted by GOP attempts to pack as many Democratic voters as possible into a single district, but they are few and far between. And this doesn’t include the handful of states where Republicans are also seeking to eliminate Democratic seats. While Democrats could gain as many as 8-9 seats from the new Illinois and California maps, Republicans will return the favor in North Carolina (2-4 seats), Georgia (1-2 seats), Indiana (1 seat), Missouri (1 seat), and Michigan (1 seat).
When all is said and done, Republicans aren’t likely to gain more than several seats through redistricting and could end up losing a couple. But the more important number is how many seats both parties are best-positioned to defend – and that number is likely to substantially change in the coming months.
On that score, Republicans hold a significant advantage, making the Democrats’ 24 seat pickup to retake the majority steeper. And that’s ultimately the GOP’s secret weapon as they aim to hold control of the House.
This article appears in the June 22, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.