Colorado deadlocks on redistricting, with plenty at stake

at 10:39 AM ET, 05/03/2011

This is the 19th in a weekly 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 Colorado. (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 and New Jersey.)

Colorado could very well be the first state to put the drawing of its new congressional districts into the hands of judges.

A nasty war of words between Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature has gone on for weeks now, with the legislature’s bipartisan 10-person redistricting committee unable to work together on a map.

Given the amount of turnover in the Colorado delegation over the last decade — both sides have held five of seven seats at various points — and the distance between the two sides’ proposals, the Centennial State is emerging as a key redistricting battleground, with the next map potentially swinging two or three seats over the next ten years.

And given the stakes, neither side is budging.

With control of the process split — Democrats control the state Senate, and Republicans control the state House — compromise is looking increasingly unlikely. And most involved now say the matter is on a collision course with the courts.

But before we get into the potential legal action, let’s look at where the two sides stand.

Two weeks ago, the redistricting committee released six Democratic proposals and five Republican ones (the maps can be seen here). The Democratic maps were all strikingly similar to each other, as were the Republican ones. But there was plenty of distance between the two sets of proposals.

Republicans are essentially proposing that the lines remain as is, with minor adjustments made to accommodate population shifts. They currently hold a four-to-three majority in the congressional delegation, and they seem to be happy with that. Ideally they would reclaim Rep. Ed Perlmutter’s (D) 7th district in the northern Denver suburbs, which they held early last decade, but doing so could endanger other Republicans.

(Follow along on the congressional map here.)

In fact, in the GOP-proposed maps relatively little is done to shore up either of two freshman GOP congressmen from rural districts – Cory Gardner in the Fort Collins- and Eastern Plains-based 4th and Scott Tipton in the Western Slope- and Pueblo-based 3rd. Besides shifting a county or two, their districts, which both went 50 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, are the same.

Perlmutter and Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette in the Denver-based 1st district and Jared Polis in the Boulder-based 2nd district remain safe under the GOP map, giving Democrats three solid seats for the foreseeable future.

Democrats, meanwhile, proposed an extensive redrawing of the lines that would give them a good chance at unseating Rep. Mike Coffman (R) and help their cause in reclaiming Gardner’s seat. It would also create big changes for Tipton.

Coffman’s 6th district, currently stretching from suburban southern Denver to the south and east, would take in many of Perlmutter’s constituents, wrapping around Denver’s eastern and northern suburbs while making Aurora its population hub. The new district would be almost completely different than the one he has now.

Gardner’s eastern 4th would lose the solidly Republican southeastern corner of the state to Tipton, while taking in some territory closer to Denver from Perlmutter and Coffman. Gardner beat Rep. Betsy Markey (D) in the 2010 election.

Tipton, whose 3rd district currently encompasses the Western Slope and Pueblo in the middle of the state, would have to give away Grand Junction and the entire northwestern corner of the state to shift into Gardner’s southeastern territory. Tipton’s district, which was held by Rep. John Salazar (D) from 2004 to 2010, would become much safer but also very different than it is now. And he would have to watch his back in a primary.

In order to make these changes, Polis’ and Perlmutter’s districts would have to undergo significant changes as well.

Polis would be doing his party a big favor in his Boulder-based 2nd by taking in the northwest corner of the state from Tipton. All of a sudden, his district looks like a swing district. (Democrats aren’t worried that he would lose it given his strong performances and his personal wealth.)

Perlmutter’s 7th, meanwhile, would become a western suburban district, losing all of its eastern suburbs and taking in some of Polis’ territory. The changes would move Perlmutter’s constituents closer to his home in Golden and also move his 2010 opponent, Aurora City Councilman Ryan Frazier (R), out of the district.

So the Democrats want big changes, and Republicans want to stand pat. Is there still hope for a compromise? And who wins if the two sides go to court?

Put simply: It’s difficult to see a compromise coming from where the two sides currently stand.

Republicans believe their map is a compromise map. After all, they note, the current lines were drawn by Democrats and included five-to-two advantages for each party at various points in the last decade. What could be better in a swing state?

Democrats, though, may stand to gain from continuing to push for big changes. If the sides deadlock and can’t come to an agreement, the map will go to the courts — and the state Supreme Court is dominated by Democratic appointees.

At the same time, legislators as a rule don’t like that option, because it takes the decision-making power out of their hands. What’s more, the courts are usually opposed to wholesale changes, unless there is a compelling reason to make them.

Democrats say their proposal is workable because it makes the map more competitive, but it seems entirely possible that a Democratic-leaning Supreme Court may be content with something similar to the current map — i.e. the GOP plan.

As it stands, state Senate Democrats introduced a bill Thursday that bore a striking resemblance to their previous proposals on the redistricting committee — and met with similar GOP resistance — and state House Republicans are likely to follow suit today.

The current legislative session ends May 11. If the two sides can’t reach an agreement, they could have a special session, but given the amount of time that has already been spent on this issue and the lack of progress, it’s not clear that would yield anything either.

But either way, a state known for its competitive congressional races in recent years should continue to have plenty of them.

 
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