In 1935, Austrian quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger devised a thought experiment involving a cat in a box that could either be dead or alive, to counter other quantum thinkers who believed that the cat could be in a simultaneous “superposition” of both states. You’ve got to hand it to bloggers on SwingStateProject.com who have taken a twist on Schrödinger’s cat and coined a new term associated with candidates running in districts that may or may not exist come 2012: Schrödinger’s seat.
The main reason that the fight for the House has gotten off to a slower-than-usual start this cycle is that many candidates simply don’t yet know who their voters will be. So far, potential House challengers and open-seat contenders seem to be of two minds: A few have jumped in early in hopes of favorable changes to district lines, but the majority are playing a game of wait and see, finding little reason to go in full bore before they know where the lines will be.
In California, Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, who is (according to the California Target Book) one of 28 state legislators termed-limited out of office in 2012, recently set up a federal fundraising account to run for Congress in the state’s 26th District. The only problem: In California, a new 14-member citizens commission will draw the lines, and no one, not even 53 very scared House incumbents, can know for sure where these amateurs will set district boundaries. Portantino and others running for Schrödinger’s seat recognize that district lines are largely irrelevant to fundraising and that there are advantages to raising early money, but the gun-jumpers are in the minority.
Just three states—Arkansas, Iowa, and Louisiana—have completed congressional redistricting. Although Republicans were forced to swallow one of their own seats in Louisiana because the state is losing one, the district to be cut in Iowa may come out of either the Democratic or the Republican column. Forty states will need to complete new maps in the next year; so far, anyway, redistricting isn’t looking like the GOP bonanza that some Republicans initially thought it would be.
Republicans haven’t had great early success in channeling big money toward their vulnerable freshmen, in part because one in five House members is a GOP freshman and they are competing for resources. Instead, many GOP strategists are counting on redistricting to help shore up seats in places where Republicans might have been able to win in a 2010 kind of environment but wouldn’t flourish again under the same map.
In Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states, redistricting may indeed boost some of these freshmen and take Democratic opportunities off the table. In terms of the overall numbers in the House, however, redistricting is increasingly looking like a wash. Even though Republicans will redraw four times as many seats as the Democrats will, the GOP’s chances to win big in the mapmaking game are offset by the number of seats the party already picked up in 2010.
In the biggest gainer in redistricting, Texas, Republicans control the process, but the first leaked map shows the state’s four new districts breaking down 2-2. That is about the best the Republicans can hope for, given the state’s Hispanic population surge. And although Republicans reasonably hope to ax several Democratic districts in North Carolina and one each in Georgia and Indiana, Democrats could carve as many as four Republicans out of their seats in Illinois. Depending on what the Justice Department and the courts rule, Democrats could also reap small windfalls in Florida and California.
But Democrats probably won’t be able to claim a clear victory in redistricting either. Go to any House Democratic press briefing these days, and aides will gleefully hand out lists of the 61 Republicans sitting in districts that Obama carried and the 14 Republicans sitting in districts that Obama and John Kerry both won. By the time Republicans complete redistricting in the states they control, significantly fewer of their members could be sitting in districts that fit these descriptions.
My early guess on the number of seats that Democrats might pick up in an average outcome on election night 2012 would about equal the number of freshman Republicans who sit in Kerry districts, which is 11. Republicans such as Reps. Allen West (FL-22), Robert Dold (IL-10), Chip Cravaack (MN-08), Charlie Bass (NH-02), and Ann Marie Buerkle (NY-25) may all end up in The Cook Political Report’s toss-up column, but Democrats will need to put at least 25 GOP seats in play to have a shot at gaining a majority in the House. A lot depends on redistricting. So for now, we are in wait-and-see mode—just like most candidates.
David Wasserman contributed
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This article appears in the May 7, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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