WASHINGTON — A year before the polls open in the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans are already poised to flip at least five seats in the closely divided House thanks to redrawn district maps that are more distorted, more disjointed and more gerrymandered than any since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
The rapidly changing congressional map, which is about a quarter of the way there, has seen districts redrawn this past year. This represents an even more extreme warping American political architecture. State legislators in many states are aggressively trying to consolidate their partisan dominance.
The flood of gerrymandering, carried out by both parties but predominantly by Republicans, is likely to leave the country ever more divided by further eroding competitive elections and making representatives more beholden to their party’s base.
At the same time, Republicans’ upper hand in the redistricting process, combined with plunging approval ratings for President Biden and the Democratic Party, provides the party with what could be a nearly insurmountable advantage in the 2022 midterm elections and the next decade of House races.
“The floor for Republicans has been raised,” Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the chairman of House Republicans’ campaign committee, said in an interview. “Our incumbents actually are getting stronger districts.”
Congressional maps serve, perhaps more than ever before, as a predictor of which party will control the House of Representatives, where Democrats now hold 221 seats to Republicans’ 213. In the 12 states that have completed mapping, Republicans have gained seats in Iowa, North Carolina Texas, Montana and South Dakota. Democrats have lost the advantage over districts in North Carolina or Iowa.
Republicans have gained five additional seats that they can expect to hold, while Democrats are down one. To win a House majority, Republicans will need to flip five seats currently held by Democrats next year.
“They’re really taking a whack at competition,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The path back to a majority for Democrats if they lose in 2022 has to run through states like Texas, and they’re just taking that off the table.”
For years, competition in House races is declining. In 2020, The New York Times considered just 61 of the 435 House elections to be “battleground” contests. The trend is most obvious in Texas, where 14 congressional district had a presidential election that was separated by less than 10 percentage point. With the state’s new maps, only three are projected to be decided by a similar margin.
Redistricting, which occurs every 10 year, began this summer, after states received the long-delayed 2020 census results. The process will continue, state by state, through the winter and spring and is to be completed before the primary contests for next year’s midterm elections.
The state legislatures control the map drawing process in most states. They often resort to gerrymanders and other far-reaching tactics. Redistricting is controlled by Republicans in states that have 187 congressional seats. Democrats are limited to 84. Rest of the redistricting will be done by outside panels, or in states where both parties must agree on maps.
Gerrymandering is carried out in many ways, but the two most common forms are “cracking” and “packing.” Cracking is when mapmakers spread a cluster of a certain type of voters — for example, those affiliated with the opposing party — among several districts to dilute their vote. Packing refers to when members of a particular demographic group, such as Black voters, are packed into as few districts possible.
This year’s Republican gains build on a significant cartographic advantage. The existing maps were heavily gerrymandered by statehouse Republicans after the G.O.P.’s wave election in 2010, in a rapid escalation of the congressional map-drawing wars. Both parties are starting this year from a highly constrained map in a zero sum political environment. They have been able take a more surgical approach thanks to advances in voter data and software.
Republicans are cautious about doing a premature victory lap in case the country’s political mood shifts again over the next year. Democrats believe that even though keeping their House majority is difficult, they have a greater chance of holding the Senate seat, where Vice President Kamala Harir currently holds a 50-50 tie.
Republicans also argue that there could in fact be many newly competitive House districts if Mr. Biden’s approval ratings remain in the doldrums and voters replicate the G.O.P.’s successes in elections this month.
Democrats are not proud to boast about Republicans’ fear of competitive elections.
“Fear is driving all of this,” David Pepper, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman, said on Wednesday at a hearing to discuss a proposed map that would give Republicans 13 of the state’s 15 congressional seats. “Fear of what would happen if we actually had a real democracy.”
In the coming weeks, there will be more shifts from Democratic to Republican districts. In Georgia and Florida, Republican lawmakers will soon start debating new maps.
Many other states have also completed maps for 2020s that consolidate existing Republican advantages. Republicans in Alabama and Indiana shored up G.O.P.-held congressional districts while packing their state’s pockets of Democrats into uncompetitive enclaves. A new map in Utah has eliminated a district that was competitive in Salt Lake City, which Democrats won in 2018. Republicans have made an Oklahoma City seat much safer, while Colorado’s independent redistricting commission shored up the district of Representative Lauren Boebert, a Republican and Trump ally, so much that her leading Democratic opponent, who had raised $1.9 million, dropped out of the contest to defeat her.
Governor Greg Abbott of Texas signed into law a map that protects the state’s 23 Republican incumbents while adding two safely red seats. Greg Abbott signed into law a map that protects the state’s 23 Republican incumbents while adding two safely red seats, a year after the party spent $22 million to protect vulnerable House members.
“The competitive Republican seats are off the board,” said Adam Kincaid, the executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the party’s clearinghouse for designing new maps.
Illinois is one of few states where Democrats are on offense. It will eliminate two Republican seats and add one Democratic seat to its delegation when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the map that the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature approved last month. New York is likely to add seats to the Democratic column once the party’s lawmakers complete maps next year, and Maryland Democrats may draw their state’s lone Republican congressman out of a district.
After initial Republican proposals to split Omaha in two, Nebraska Democrats were able to save a competitive district that includes Omaha.
Calling the Republican moves an “unprecedented power grab,” Kelly Burton, the president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said that the G.O.P. was “not successfully taking over the battleground” but instead “proactively and intentionally trying to remove competitive seats.”
Other states where Republicans have drawn advantageous districts for themselves a decade back will now have maps based on outside commissions or courts.
Understanding how U.S. Redistricting works
What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It is done every ten years, following the census, in order to reflect changes of population.
On Thursday, Wisconsin Republicans passed a congressional map which would shift a Democratic-controlled seat to Republican control. Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat has promised to veto the bill. Michigan and Virginia, which have gerrymandered their districts, have created outside commissions to draw the new lines. Pennsylvania has a Democratic governor who is certain to veto Republican maps.
And it’s not clear what California’s independent commission will do when it completes the state’s process later this year.
Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, the chairman of House Democrats’ campaign arm, said the party still had a path to hold its majority.
“We’ve got a battlefield that we can win on; I think we are very much in the fight,” he said in an interview. “No one is declaring victory just yet.”
Yet, Republicans still have many more opportunities to make their point. G.O.P. G.O.P. In Georgia, Republicans are set to place Representatives Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux, Democrats who hold seats in Atlanta’s booming northern suburbs, into a single Democratic district while forming a new Republican seat.
Officials from both parties are planning for years of legal disputes over the maps. There is also the possibility that courts could order the redrawing and redrawing of maps for well into the next decade. Maps in Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, North Carolina, and Oregon have already been the subject of lawsuits.
However, the legal landscape has changed since the last redistricting cycle. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts are not the right venue for lawsuits regarding partisan-gerrymandering. (Lawsuits to claim racial and electoral gerrymandering under Section 62 of the Voting Rights Act are still possible.
“This is always in every decade a very accelerated process in the courts, but it is even more so this year because of the four months that were lost because of the delayed release,” said Thomas A. Saenz, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a group involved in multiple redistricting lawsuits. “The question is, will the courts run out of time and allow even maps that are legally flawed to be used for one election cycle in 2022?”
Among the states with completed maps, nowhere more than North Carolina represents the vigorous Republican effort to tilt the scales of redistricting in the party’s favor.
North Carolina’s Republicans, who control the Legislature, were forced by the courts to redraw its congressional map twice since 2011 by the courts for obvious partisangerrymandering. They approved highly gerrymandered areas this month that essentially reverse the state to a similar map to the ones the courts had thrown out.
The G.O.P. was able to pass the map Republicans passed. an advantage in 10 of the state’s 14 congressional districts, despite a near 50-50 split in the statewide popular vote for president in 2020. The state was won by former President Donald J. Trump by 1.3 percentage points. (The current congressional breakdown is eight Republicans, five Democrats, as a result of a court ordered redrawing map for the 2020 election.
The map places Democrats in three blue districts around Raleigh and Durham, as well as in one competitive northeast district with a large Black population. This would put G.K. Butterfield (Black congressman) in danger of losing his seat.
Republicans in the state argued that their redistricting process had been “race blind” because they drew maps without looking at demographic data. Critics claim that the end result was worse.
“To pretend to be race-neutral and then draw these districts that are so harmful to Black voters flies in the face of why we even have federal law,” said Allison Riggs, an executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is suing the state. “The process is so broken.”
Source: NY Times