The decennial redistricting process is a humbling experience for many members of Congress. They must head home, proverbial hats in hand, and beg state legislators tasked with redrawing district boundaries to help them stay in office.
It is a powerful reminder that members are not only mere mortals, but that their political interests can exist in conflict with younger, ambitious state legislators—even if they share a party affiliation.
“There are always members of the Legislature that want to serve in Congress, and this is an opportunity for them,” said freshman Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla. “There’s very little we, as members of Congress, can do about it, but it’s something we have to consider.”
This year, as redistricting pens begin to draw boundaries that will exist for the next decade, a new potential foil threatens members in key states. Some will see their fates determined by commissions, rather than by legislators. That injects a level of uncertainty that will likely put some incumbents in jeopardy.
“You don’t know what the result of a commission will be. You just have to see the way the lines are drawn,” said former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, who has been intimately involved in previous redistricting efforts. “There’s no way of predicting how those things are going to turn out.”
In California and Florida, two states new to nonpartisan redistricting, the uncertainty factor should be a major concern. The process in both states isn’t expected to lead to major changes in the partisan makeup of each delegation, but party officials in Washington are making sure that incumbents get a clear message: Just because a district stays in one party’s hands doesn’t mean it will be represented by the same member.
“We’re telling our delegations that they don’t draw the maps,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., who is the redistricting point man for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“We would like to think that every member could come in and draw a perfect district for them. The one thing that we know for sure [is], unless you live in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, or Montana, you’re going to have a different district,” Westmoreland said.
California knows gerrymandering. The state was carved up into such precise voting blocs after the 2000 Census that, in the intervening decade, only a single House seat flipped, when Democrat Jerry McNerney unseated former GOP Rep. Richard Pombo in 2006. To inject more competition, California voters in 2008 passed an initiative to establish a board of 14 commissioners, five each from the Republican and Democratic side and four independents, who would draw state Assembly and Senate districts. An initiative that passed last November added congressional districts to the mix.
Normally, incumbents facing redistricting are protected by legislators who know where the members of Congress live. But California’s new law prohibits any consideration of an incumbent’s residence. In fact, districts are not to be drawn with political considerations in mind at all.
That seems unlikely, though, and many believe the state’s congressional makeup of 34 Democrats and 19 Republicans is likely to stay. But that doesn’t mean every incumbent is safe.
The Los Angeles area has not grown as fast as the rest of the state, which will put the squeeze on any of 17 lawmakers. Combined, those districts must pick up 878,000 people, 176,000 more than the ideal size of a Golden State seat. The commission will need to draw two districts together; eliminating a Democratic seat could push Reps. Brad Sherman, Howard Berman, and Henry Waxman into two districts in the northern suburbs, or perhaps three if the Pasadena-based district of Rep. Adam Schiff goes into the mix.
Republicans are quietly worried about Reps. Mary Bono Mack, David Dreier, Ken Calvert, and Dan Lungren. Lungren’s seat, which borders Oregon and Nevada, is likely to move out of the Sacramento area. Dreier could be combined with Schiff, who first came to Congress by ousting a Republican. And both Calvert and Bono Mack must shed hundreds of thousands of voters—211,000 for Bono Mack, 141,000 for Calvert—opening the door to new, competitive seats. What’s more, both Bono Mack and Calvert represent more Hispanics than they do whites, which is dangerous in a state in which 65 percent of Hispanic voters backed Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010.
The situation is even more confusing in Florida. State constitutional amendments passed last November prohibit the Legislature from considering partisan factors, including protecting incumbents, when drawing maps. The state is heavily gerrymandered. Rep. Corrine Brown’s district snakes from the Jacksonville suburbs to just outside Orlando; Rep. Tom Rooney’s seat stretches from Port St. Lucie, on the Atlantic, to Tampa Bay, bordering the Gulf of Mexico; Reps. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat, and Allen West, a Republican, hold districts that stretch, thanks to the narrowest of connections, through Miami’s northern suburbs from West Palm Beach to Hollywood.
Democrats hold just six of 25 seats, an imbalance the party has bemoaned for years. If the so-called Fair Districts amendments hold up, both under Justice Department review and under legal challenges, Democrats have the chance to win several seats. But until the legal cases play out, the outcome remains uncertain.
“Are we going to have to follow municipal boundaries, county boundaries, things of that nature? And if so, will that still comply with Justice Department standards?” asked Ross, whose district is relatively congruous. “Does that mean they might carve up my district? Every member of Congress has that risk.”
Ultimately, the Legislature will draw the lines. That should trouble some members of Congress; Florida legislators have drawn boundaries that fit their own futures. When Florida picked up two seats after the 2000 census, then-state House Speaker Tom Feeney helped draw a seat stretching from Daytona Beach to the eastern Orlando suburbs ideally suited for him. He won the seat in 2002.
This article appears in the March 31, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.