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California-size overhaul not likely with Arizona redistricting commission

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This is the latest in a regular Fix series that focuses on the decennial redistricting process in key states. We call it “Mapping the Future.” The series aims to look forward to how the maps in these states could be drawn and what the best and worst outcomes for each party might be. Today we take on Arizona. (And make sure to check out the previous installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, California, Nevada, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Utah, North Carolina , Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, Louisiana, New Jersey, Colorado, Minnesota, South Carolina, Oregon,Tennessee and New York.)

Just as California’s redistricting commission wraps up work on a plan that will fundamentally re-order the state’s 53-member congressional delegation, Arizona’s own commission is getting started on a re-mapping plan that could do the same – albeit on a much smaller scale.

Arizona’s independent commission, like California’s, is not supposed to consider where incumbents live when it draws its maps — a mandate that could cause all kinds of political havoc.

“People are going to get stuck together,” predicted Arizona redistricting expert Ken Clark, who supports competitive redistricting. “Population shifts have been significant enough that everything’s up in the air.”

Indeed, two draft proposals — known as “grids” — that were released by the commission over the weekend would significantly re-draw the districts from their current makeup.

“We’re wiping the slate clean, and we’re starting over,” Democratic-appointed commission member Linda McNulty said at a meeting earlier this month.

But there is also reason to believe that the current map will stay at least somewhat intact.

That’s because, unlike California’s commission, Arizona’s panel is comprised of political appointees like McNulty who may be looking out for their own party’s political best interests. And the realities of where the population growth has occurred — primarily in the Phoenix suburbs — and the need to protect majority-Latino districts means we already have a decent idea what the map could look like in 2012.

Essentially, it’s likely to be split the difference between what the grids look like and the current map. That’s what happened in 2001, when the map retained many of the bones of its predecessor even after the redistricting commission released a pretty different-looking grid proposal.

Digging into the indvidual districts, the big questions going into Arizona’s redistricting process are where the state’s new congressional district is put (the state is gaining a seat thanks to population growth that outstripped the national average) and how Reps. Paul Gosar (R) and Gabrielle Giffords (D) come out of the process.

Because almost all of the state’s population growth has been focused in two areas — Pinal County southeast of Phoenix and the western Phoenix area — it’s a good bet that the new district will be anchored somewhere between them.

Democrats hope that the new district is either a heavily Latino district and/or contains some of the more Democratic-leaning areas near Phoenix.

The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman points out that Tempe — home to Arizona State University — could be combined with increasingly Latino areas of suburban Mesa and east Phoenix, creating a competitive district between what are now the 4th and 6th districts (You can follow along on the map here.)

Drawing the new district to be Republican-leaning is pretty easy as well. Instead of drawing a Latino district, the new one would be more suburban, leaving Phoenix for Rep. Ed Pastor (D). The new district would likely contain a good swath of Pinal County or some of the more suburban areas of Rep. Trent Franks’s(R) 2nd district west of Phoenix.

Both Republicans and Democrats will be making their cases to the commission in the weeks ahead.

It’s easier to draw a Republican-leaning district because many of the state’s Democrats are concentrated in majority-Latino districts. Arizona is also pretty clearly still a red state, with Republicans dominating state politics.

The argument could be made, though, that the state contains just two Democratic-leaning districts (out of eight). Nearly half of the state’s growth over the last decade has been among Latinos, and it has also shifted more Democratic in recent years. Democrats say their prospects are better than it may appear, because the growing constituencies in the state have been more Democratic-leaning.

The problem with that Latino growth, of course, is that it may be used to bolster the two Latino-majority districts, one of which features a majority of Latino people but not Hispanic voters. Federal law requires that these districts at least keep their current Latino influence.

There’s no real way to judge which way the commission might go.

“The reality is a new district will be wherever the commission decides to put it,” said nonpartisan redistricting consultant Tony Sissons. “Not a person on the planet knows where these districts will be.”

But there are a few districts that we’ve got a pretty good idea about. Because of the Voting Rights Act, Rep. Raul Grijalva’s (D) 7th district will likely continue to tie heavily Latino west Tucson to the more Hispanic-heavy areas of southwest Arizona and all the way up to the Phoenix suburbs. The same is true of Pastor’s Phoenix-based 4th district, which includes much of the area’s Latino population.

The fact that Grijalva’s district will likely maintain its eastern border means any changes to Giffords’s neighboring 8th district likely won’t be drastic. While we don’t know whether she will run for reelection, we do know that her southeastern district is likely to remain competitive.

Giffords, who recently returned to Washington as she recovers from an assassination attempt, represents the state’s one bona fide swing district.

The other incumbent with a vested interest in what happens in redistricting is Gosar, who faces a rematch with former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) in the Republican-leaning 1st district. His district is currently anchored in Flagstaff and contains much of northern Arizona and Pinal County. The more of northern Arizona that he keeps or picks up, the better his chances at a second term.

If Franks’ 2nd district moves over to pick up some of Gosar’s territory, that could make things better for Kirkpatrick in 2012.

At least one part of Northern Arizona, though, is likely to remain largely as-is. Gosar’s 1st and Franks’s 2nd districts are drawn very oddly to keep the rival Hopi and Navajo Native American tribes in different districts, and it’s a good bet they will stay that way.

From there, it’s really anybody’s guess. Commissions are notoriously unpredictable, and while we may not seeing a second version of California’s redistricting in Arizona, there could still be signifcant changes.

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