One of the paradoxes of gerrymandering is that even the most partisan, technologically sophisticated efforts at redistricting a statewide map often fall flat in the face of a political wave. In these elections where one party dominates—which includes each of the past three midterms—gerrymandering simply isn’t as foolproof as it’s cracked up to be.
In fact, because more ideologically extreme representatives tend to get elected from politically safer seats, many of these members end up being wholly unprepared to run a capable campaign when the political tide turns against them. That dynamic is emerging again in this midterm election, where many of the Republican Congress members who were protected by generous mapmakers are now in precarious position for their reelection.
In addition, the Trump-era realignment of suburban professionals into the Democratic Party and blue-collar whites into the Republican Party have made the partisan intentions of past mapmakers somewhat obsolete. The three House Republicans representing suburban Philadelphia would have been in serious trouble even before a judge imposed a new map designed to spur additional political competition. High-minded reformers couldn’t break the GOP’s grip on power in suburban Orange County, California. It took the party’s own strategic decisions—or missteps—to make that happen.
Overlooked by Democratic activists insistent on railing against gerrymandering as the nation’s primary political scourge is the large number of protected members looking increasingly vulnerable. In Virginia, Rep. Dave Brat’s Richmond-area district was drawn to protect his powerful predecessor Eric Cantor. Instead, Cantor was stunned in a 2014 primary—and Brat may face the same fate against Democratic former intelligence operative Abigail Spanberger in a diversifying suburban seat. Spanberger was one of the first Democratic recruits to use Trump’s chumminess with Vladimir Putin as a central line of attack.
The list goes on: In North Carolina, Rep. Ted Budd was the beneficiary of the state’s blatant gerrymander, but he’s only polling at 40 percent against attorney Kathy Manning in a district rated by the Cook Partisan Voting Index as R+6. In Ohio, Rep. Steve Chabot returned to Congress in a newly-drawn safe seat outside Cincinnati, but he’s now seriously threatened by Aftab Pureval, a 35-year-old county clerk of courts inspired by former President Obama to run for office.
In Texas, a Republican-friendly map didn’t account for the anti-Trump backlash in the affluent suburbs. That’s putting Reps. Pete Sessions and John Culberson in a tough position despite representing traditionally conservative seats. And in next month’s Ohio special election, a seat that was redrawn to protect then-GOP Rep. Patrick Tiberi looks like a genuine toss-up despite the Republican Party’s best efforts.
To be sure, it shouldn’t take a political landslide to ensure a critical mass of competitive House elections. But given our country’s increasingly partisan voting behavior, the expectation of a midterm wave against the party in power has become the new normal. And counterintuitively, under such circumstances, the odds of defeating an unprepared incumbent in a safer seat aren’t significantly better than defeating a well-prepared incumbent in a more-competitive seat. Look at the 2006 midterms, when many skilled GOP moderates retained Democratic-friendly seats, while hard-liners in more-favorable districts got swept out of office.
In a perfect world, it would be preferable to have more geographically compact, politically competitive districts in the House. At the least, it would likely lead to more politicians more focused on winning a general election than being fearful about losing a primary.
But beware of the law of unintended consequences. In Pennsylvania, Rep. Ryan Costello emerged as one of Trump’s leading Republican critics and a champion of more-moderate immigration policies. The new map embraced by reformers in the state drew his district out of existence, and forced him into a premature retirement. His expected Democratic replacement, meanwhile, is likely to be a reliable party-line vote.