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FEATURE STORY

Battle Lines: The Next Redistricting Brawl

Both parties already are gathering their forces and plotting their strategies for the congressional redistricting that will begin in 2011.

Map updated on Dec. 23.

Murray Clark wants to draw some lines. But his interest wasn't spawned by any great appreciation for art. Instead, Clark, the state Republican Party chairman in Indiana, is eagerly anticipating redrawing the congressional district map in his home state, which Barack Obama narrowly won in 2008.

 

First, Clark wants something close to a straight east-west line running across the state, a bit south of Indianapolis. He might also want another line to scoot around Monroe County to isolate the liberal campus population of the large state university in Bloomington from more-moderate areas. And he would be glad to draw separate sets of boundaries enclosing the Democratic bastions of Indianapolis in the state's center and Gary in the northwest corner. In the end, he is hoping for a Republican success story that could shift as many as three of the swing state's House seats from the Democrats.

Like politicians across the nation in both parties, Clark has begun planning for the states' decennial redistricting of their congressional boundaries. That process will not formally start until 2011, after April's census count yields the December 2010 announcement of the state-by-state reapportionment of the House for the next decade.

Clark is confident that Republicans will control the process in Indiana under the leadership of GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, given their party's expectation that it will hold the state Legislature after next November's election. Clark's preparations are a stark warning to Democratic Reps. Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill in the state's southernmost 8th and 9th congressional districts.

 

"I suspect that we will do some work on redistricting next year," Clark said in an interview. "The new east-west line would change the dynamics in the 8th and 9th districts, which are very conservative areas.... When Democrats drew the current maps in 2001, our contention is that they were gerrymandered."

One party's gerrymander, of course, is the other party's priceless masterpiece. Top officials on both sides are well aware that, either way, redistricting will have a huge impact on the 2012 congressional elections and on the membership of the House for the next decade. Leaders are beginning to consult with batteries of demographers, lawyers, and political operatives to get ready to try to maximize their party's total seats nationwide.

On Capitol Hill, redistricting veterans are warning fellow incumbents that the complex and little-understood process can wreak havoc -- regardless of a member's seniority, legislative influence, or political experience. "I have seen grown people cry when they find that their own career can be over because other [state] politicians are looking out for their own interests," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga.

 

Westmoreland, who participated in multiple rounds of redistricting as a state lawmaker for 12 years, now heads efforts to plan for redistricting at the National Republican Congressional Committee. He has been urging other House Republicans to prepare for 2011. "We want to build relationships in the states and be a resource for the people who draw the maps," he said. Westmoreland is also working to increase GOP control of state legislatures in the 2010 elections.

House Democrats are making their own preparations. "I want to make sure that we have a complete and accurate census, so that our constituents are treated fairly," said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., an eight-year state Senate veteran whom Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has designated to coordinate redistricting for their party. "I have been meeting with members from each state and have told them that we are watching the data to make sure the process is done fairly."

The zero-sum game of redistricting will inevitably create winners and losers. Some House members will be forced out, either by the mapmaking before the 2012 election or in contests in which they must face new constituents. It's no accident that during each of the past three decades, the highest number of House retirements came in 1982, 1992, and 2002, according to Vital Statistics on Congress 2008, published by the Brookings Institution. In those three elections, 37 House members lost in party primaries, often in contests in which redistricting pitted them against other incumbents. In the combined 12 other elections since 1980, by contrast, a total of only 31 House members lost renomination.

Although many House members otherwise breeze from one election to the next, redistricting poses formidable and diverse demands for them and their advisers. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution requires all districts within a state to have the same population total -- which, on average, will be slightly more than 700,000 people in 2012. The successful House candidates will be those who find the most favorable partisan mix within their districts.

In trying to come up with just the right formula, politicians will be forced to examine census and other demographic data to review how constituencies have changed in the previous decade, looking at race and ethnicity, jobs and income levels, and partisan voting patterns. Among members of the same party in adjacent districts, testy clashes can break out for control of key precincts.

In most states, members of Congress will be putting their fate in the hands of lowly state legislators who have the authority to draw the new districts. For powerful national lawmakers, it can be humbling to be at the mercy of power brokers in locales from Albany to Springfield to Austin, which have been known for their own dysfunctionality.

"Many members of the California delegation don't have friends in Sacramento," said Brad Smith, the veteran chief of staff to Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who has been notably successful in mastering the demands of redistricting. "And with term limits there [in the state Legislature], many of those members want a job elsewhere."

Big State Shifts

Virtually all states are in play during redistricting -- whether they are large or small, and whether they are gaining, losing, or keeping the same number of congressional seats. The chief exceptions are the seven states that have only one House district, all of which are expected to remain unchanged.

Both parties face challenges in the three largest states -- California, Texas, and New York. Although California has gained House representation in every decade since 1850, it is expected to remain even at 53 seats or perhaps lose one this time around, according to the latest Census Bureau projections. Democrats control the Legislature, reflecting the state's partisan leanings, but GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is retiring next year and voters might choose another Republican to succeed him. Further complicating the picture is a possible state referendum on the ballot next November that could hand control of congressional redistricting to an outside commission; voters have already approved an independent panel to draw lines for the state Legislature.

California's huge and still-growing Latino population has gained notable influence in state and local government but has been something of a sleeping giant in congressional elections. In Los Angeles County, nearly half of the 10 million residents are Hispanic, but Latinos hold only four of the county's 13 strongly Democratic districts "It's incredibly important for the Latino community to increase its influence," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif. "The desire is there because the numbers are there."

Sanchez predicted an increase of perhaps three new Latino members in the Los Angeles area because of redistricting. The results could jeopardize House members in both parties, she cautioned. "All incumbents would be foolish to ignore their prospects."

But some Democratic Party lea-ders -- and even some Hispanic activists -- prefer to take a conciliatory approach and enhance overall Dem-ocratic performance rather than overtly promote Hispanic interests. "The number of Latino members of Congress will grow over time," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "It's difficult to take on an incumbent. And Latinos don't necessarily vote for other Latinos." His chief goal, Vargas added, is to elect public officials of all backgrounds who respond to Latinos' concerns.

 

"There is a risk of overplaying your hand." -- former Rep. Tom Davis

 

House Republicans will have less political leverage in the state's redistricting. Southern California's GOP districts, however, have generally grown more in population than have the more-urban Democratic districts, and that growth could further complicate Democrats' prospects.

Texas, which is likely to add three or four House seats to its current 32, has also seen a huge increase in Latinos. Like California's, Texas's population is 36 percent Hispanic, according to last year's Census Bureau estimates. Currently, the Texas delegation includes six Hispanic Democrats; national and state-based Latino leaders hope they can control three of the new districts, each of which would be likely Democratic: one in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, one in Houston, and another in South Texas.

"The trend is heading in [Democrats'] direction," said former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, who was active in state and national redistricting for three decades before he fell victim to the GOP's controversial mid-decade redistricting in 2004.

Still, Texas has a Republican governor and a GOP-controlled Legislature, although Democrats hope for state legislative gains in 2010. Westmoreland said he expects only two new minority House districts in the state. And Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who ousted Frost and now chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, would not concede Hispanic voters in his state to the Democrats. "The Republican Party will continue to be the party of job creation and the values that represent Hispanics," said Sessions, who is married to a Latina and represents a district that is 42 percent Hispanic.

Racial politics may be less contentious in New York, where the total population has barely changed but the number of Hispanics has increased. New York had the largest House delegation until 1970, when it had 41 seats, but it is now third, with 29 seats -- and it is expected to lose one more. The one black-controlled district that could be at risk because it now has a large Hispanic plurality is the Harlem seat held by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.

Smaller State Changes

Redistricting politics can be just as intense in relatively small states. Indiana and Tennessee, for instance, are expected to hold steady with nine seats apiece. In each state, Democrats ran the redistricting process in recent cycles and enjoy 5-4 control of the congressional delegation. But Republicans are optimistic that their party will fully control both state governments after next year's election, and they see big opportunities on the horizon.

"We believe that we can gain two or three seats from redistricting," said Chris Devaney, the state Republican Party chairman in Tennessee. "With fair lines, we believe that all three are sustainable." That might leave Democrats with only two seats, based in Nashville and Memphis. But Devaney cautioned that he doesn't want to put the redistricting cart before the horse of the 2010 election, in which all three of the targeted Democratic districts could be in play. "Redistricting would be insurance in case we don't win any of those seats in 2010," he said.

Those targeted districts are represented by Democratic Reps. Lincoln Davis, Bart Gordon, and John Tanner, all of whom have easily won re-election in recent years. Obama got only 35 percent, 37 percent, and 43 percent of the vote in those districts, respectively, which are exurban and rural areas where his approval has since dipped. Although the recent retirement announcements by Gordon and Tanner will likely accelerate Devaney's timetable, Republicans could use redistricting to entrench their new GOP members if they win those open seats next year.

Virginia is a third state where Republicans see redistricting opportunities. They took the governor's office and scored gains in the state House in this year's election. Democrats narrowly maintain control of the state Senate, although the Republicans are scheming to force a deadlock there. Virginia will probably retain its 11 congressional seats. Democrats gained three seats in the 2008 election, and Republicans are already targeting all of the freshmen plus 14-term Rep. Rick Boucher, who has not faced a serious challenger since the 1980s. Last year, Obama got less than 40 percent of the vote in Boucher's district, as did Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds this year.

Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who helped to draw the lines in 2001 that gave Republicans 8-3 control of the state's congressional delegation until their setback in 2008, contends that incoming Gov. Bob McDonnell can help the GOP regain its edge. "A return to 8-3 could be done easily," Davis said. "The goal is 9-2, though there is a risk of overplaying your hand."

Boucher dismissed such speculation as highly premature. "They can do very little to my district," he said. He noted that his district is bordered by four other states, which leaves little room for gerrymandering, even though redistricting will need to add more people to his district.

Partisan Gerrymandering

Many reformers and political pundits have criticized the convoluted congressional lines that have often emerged from recent rounds of redistricting as partisan abuses of democracy that ought to be outlawed or otherwise limited. As a better alternative, they frequently cite Iowa, where a nonpartisan panel of state employees draws the relatively straight boundaries that have resulted in competitive districts.

Sarah Binder of Brookings, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, and other scholars have said that partisan gerrymanders have reduced competition for House districts. In a column this fall, Albert Hunt of Bloomberg News decried the "polarizing effect" of redistricting, which he called a "largely bipartisan scam" that stifles competition. "There are a little more than 50 truly competitive districts," Hunt wrote.

But such criticisms may be overblown. Since 2005, Democrats have a net gain of 56 House seats, even though Republicans had drawn many of those districts' boundaries to try to enhance GOP opportunities. And Republicans next year seem positioned to reclaim some of those seats from junior members, and others from more-senior Democrats, especially among the 49 Democrats in districts that Obama lost last year. These seesaws show, among other things, that partisan-tinged redistricting often cannot withstand the inevitable swings in voter sentiment.

"Recent research provides little basis for the common belief that gerrymandering is a significant cause of contemporary political polarization," political scientist Morris Fiorina wrote in a new book, Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics. Fiorina cites the fact that voting is just as polarized in the Senate -- where all members are elected statewide -- as it is in the House. Moreover, he says, many of the states where critics contend that gerrymandering of House districts has benefited one party have two senators from that same party.

In many areas where election returns lean heavily one way, it would make little difference how the district lines are drawn. "Nonpartisan redistricting has had no effect in increasing competition, though the concept may have popular support," Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, said in an interview with National Journal several years ago.

Creative redistricting does not seem likely to disappear any time soon. For one thing, the traditional patterns of people of similar backgrounds or interests being confined to cramped apartment buildings or small neighborhoods have broken down. And the growing availability of map-drawing software and census data on the Internet enables many more individuals to weigh in on redistricting.

Earlier this year, Dave Bradlee, a Seattle-based software engineer who worked for Microsoft for 20 years, launched "Dave's Redistricting App," which is available free. Bradlee writes on his blog that he has been politically active on issues such as "population and its relationship to climate change."

Political Firepower

In recent rounds of redistricting, the national parties -- working with House members -- have coordinated with their state affiliates to maximize their success, including by pouring in money and other resources. The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law now bars the parties from raising soft money, the large and mostly unregulated contributions from big donors, but they are sure to find ways to funnel political money into the redistricting process.

Democrats have responded to the new environment with the National Democratic Redistricting Trust. Bob Bauer, the veteran election-law superlawyer who is preparing to become the White House counsel, designed and formally unveiled the initiative this summer. "The trust was created to assure that Democrats have an adequate role in redistricting," said Marc Elias, who has succeeded Bauer as chairman of the political law practice at the Washington firm Perkins Coie. "It raises money to spend on litigation and to work with interested groups that need legal support in drawing the lines."

Although the trust will be nominally separate from the Democratic Party, all three of its trustees recently served in top posts at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The group's executive director, Brian Smoot, a partner in the 4C Partners political consulting firm, was the DCCC's political director in 2008. Smoot will work with Elias on securing courtroom teams for expected redistricting battles in most states; he will also help House members seek consensus on their states' mapmaking, and coordinate with allied interest groups and state legislators.

The trust does not yet have a formal budget, but it is set to raise and spend many millions of dollars. The Federal Election Commission has ruled that the campaign finance law does not cover redistricting activities, Elias said. "We are not independent, but we will operate separately from Democratic groups," he added, parsing his words.

For their part, Republicans announced in September the launch of MAPS, or Making America's Promise Secure, to work with party groups on redistricting. The co-chairmen are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.

A House Republican aide who has done early work on redistricting said that the McCain-Feingold law makes it "a challenge to figure out who does what," because the Republican National Committee can no longer directly coordinate. Even election specialists don't understand how the new rules will work, a Republican Party lawyer said. As the House GOP's redistricting coordinator, Westmoreland has initiated his own contacts with state legislators in many states.

With the Obama administration in charge of the census, Republicans worry about the potential for Democratic meddling in the count and the use of controversial statistical sampling techniques. Although Republicans resolved their initial objections to Robert Groves's appointment to head the Census Bureau, some fear the influence and political expertise of Bauer and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. "I feel very confident that the goal of Dr. Groves is to have an accurate count," Westmoreland said. "But we need to worry that Rahm is like Karl Rove on steroids."

Justice Department Review

The 1965 Voting Rights Act set out a complex regimen for federal review of state and local laws that affect voting, especially in the nine mostly Southern states and the parts of seven others that are required to receive pre-approval of any election-law changes, either from the Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. During the subsequent redistrictings in 1971, 1981, 1991, and 2001, a Republican administration was in charge at Justice, but the 2011 redistricting will take place under the watch of the Obama DOJ.

Tom Perez, who took over in October as assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said that his division is "feverishly preparing" for the census and will be ready to review redistricting plans. "I feel privileged to have a front-row seat in this conversation," said Perez, who served a dozen years as a career lawyer in the division and in 2002 was the first Hispanic elected to the Montgomery County, Md., council. During a recent speech to an alumni club of Brown University, his alma mater, Perez harshly criticized aspects of civil-rights enforcement by the Bush administration and said that part of his job was to "restore trust with the career attorneys."

Perez's selection has raised alarms among some conservatives. "My concern is that with the new leadership of the Civil Rights Division, Democratic redistricting plans will slide right through, but Republican plans will run into a buzz saw of opposition," said Hans von Spakovsky, an election-law expert who was a top official in the division during the George W. Bush administration. The division's lawyers are "highly partisan Democrats," von Spakovsky said, who in handling cases have often reflexively called outside activists for minority groups, "but they didn't get the other side of the story."

Gerry Hebert, a former longtime attorney at the division and a prominent lawyer for Democrats on redistricting issues, firmly rejected that view. With Perez, he said, "the Justice Department will be restored to its earlier approach, and decisions will be based on the merits rather than on Republican politics." He predicted more-aggressive enforcement of voting-rights laws, and said that it might lead Republicans to file some of their redistricting plans in federal court, making the process "enormously more expensive."

Perez said he expects to hire about 100 new lawyers in the Civil Rights Division, but some activists worry that the administration has not moved fast enough, especially with the census and redistricting quickly approaching. "I am concerned that it's getting late," Vargas said. "It takes time to sign and train new attorneys."

Measuring The Impact

Most states' redistricting plans will have been implemented in time for the November 2012 election, although some might require additional review. Measuring the change in the number of minority members elected to the House as the result of redistricting should be relatively easy.

At least as much interest will focus on the aggregate partisan gains and losses, but that can be more difficult to calculate. Even the relatively simple cases of Indiana, Tennessee, and Virginia raise several imponderables. When Tanner recently announced his retirement, for instance, a local news report said that a factor in his decision to retire in 2010 was that he otherwise would be "confronted with a hopeless re-election situation for 2012" because of Tennessee redistricting. And some Democrats in these three states might find themselves voted out of office because they lost touch at home, rather than because their district lines changed.

Still, redistricting seems likely to shake up the usual political outcomes. In Indiana, Tennessee, and Virginia, where Republicans now hold 13 of 29 House seats, the party hopes to gain more than half a dozen. (The GOP gained six seats in 2004 from the controversial Texas redistricting.) But some Republicans concede that they could lose nearly that many seats in California in 2012.

Although many members say they haven't given much thought to their redistricting prospects, some might want to create a checklist soon. Sanchez said that, as a new mother, it has become more challenging for her to make the trip from Washington for a long weekend in California. But she now does it once every three weeks, she said, to stay in touch with constituents and local leaders.

"It all boils down to who does the work in their district," Sanchez said. Back in 2002, she won a low-turnout primary against two better-known Democratic state legislators in the newly created district in the southeast corner of Los Angeles County. At the time, some local observers said that she benefited from campaign help from her older sister, Rep. Loretta Sanchez. That personal touch is yet another element that adds mystery to the art of redistricting.

This article appears in the December 19, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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