Redistricting battles hit a fever pitch

at 01:58 PM ET, 06/03/2011

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last few weeks, it’s that we appear to be headed for an extremely contentious round of redistricting over the next 12 months or so.

In Illinois, Democrats used their one big opportunity to gain seats in the decennial process of drawing new districts to kneecap the state’s Republican members of Congress, drawing nine of 11 of them into districts with other incumbents.

Republicans, who have many more opportunities nationally to draw the lines in key states, registered their first big potential gerrymander in Texas by releasing a map that draws three of the four districts the state is gaining in reapportionment to be Republican-leaning and decimates Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s seat by making it much more conservative.

In both cases, the maps go further than even the smartest experts had expected them to, giving the party in power a chance to win more seats than projected.

Given that Texas and Illinois are two of the first large population states to tackle redistricting so far this year — all 50 states have to redraw their lines before 2012 — we appear to be headed for a no-holds-barred redistricting cycle.

Given the increasing partisanship in Congress, such a development isn’t terribly surprising. Republicans won back the House in 2010 by standing resolutely against President Obama’s policies, and now Democrats are winning points by beating back the Republicans’ proposal on Medicare.

Redistricting is a process that is inherently political but isn’t top-of-mind for most voters. And that gives the two parties far wider latitude in doing things that are pretty overtly partisan since most people won’t ever know just what happened.

Asked Thursday whether all bets are off in the coming round of redistricting, a top GOP redistricter said yes.

“Republicans will do what they can politically to help themselves to the extent allowed by the law,” said Chris Jankowski, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, an outside group that is taking over many redistricting duties from the Republican National Committee this year.

At a breakfast for reporters Wednesday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) was mockingly congratulated by Fix favorite and redistricting guru David Wasserman for a “brutal gerrymander” in Illinois.

But Israel didn’t back down from the political nature of the process either.

“It’s like an ‘I Love Lucy re-run,’” Israel said. “Every 10 years, it’s the same plot. If you want to know how 2010 is going to go, hit rewind and go to 2000, hit rewind and go to 1990, hit rewind and go to 1980. That gives you a good sense.”

With Democrats crying foul in Texas and Republicans doing the same in Illinois, both Jankowski and Israel said the other side shouldn’t be complaining.

“They forfeited their moral high ground” in Illinois, Jankowski said. Added Israel: “This is like the arsonist hitting the first alarm.”

The reality is that both sides do this, and when given the chance to draw districts that will further their own partisan interests, they will take it, often to the fullest extent, and damn the torpedoes.

What’s happening now isn’t exceptional, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see both sides — but particularly Republicans, given that they control four times as many seats in the remapping process — stretch the map as far as possible.

With that in mind, we thought it worthwhile to examine the top 10 current redistricting battles. These are battles that have begun or are right around the corner, and are worth keeping tabs on.

Agree or disagree with our picks? The comments section awaits.

To the Line!

10. Nevada (Split control): Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) has been playing hardball, vetoing two maps from the Democratic-controlled legislature. The main issue: Republicans want the new 4th district, which the state gained in reapportionment, to be majority-Hispanic, and they’re accusing Democrats of violating the Voting Rights Act by spreading out Hispanic voters into the other three seats. Democrats accuse Republicans of packing Hispanic voters into one district since they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Now a third round of negotiations has begun as Democrats and Republicans try to compromise on a map that the governor will actually sign.

9. Colorado (Split control): Colorado lawmakers have failed to agree on a map, so the process is going to the courts for the fourth decade in a row. An attempt at legislative compromise died a fiery death, as Democrats filibustered to avoid a vote and Republicans — this is not a joke — taunted them with the theme song from “Jeopardy.” One House Republican accused Democrats of “a disgusting, despicable display of disingenuous legislation,” saying they purposefully avoided compromise in the hopes that a liberal judge will draw the lines. Democrats said the Republicans stonewalled them. Whatever actually happened, the Oct. 17 court date will be the start of another battle.

8. South Carolina (Republican-controlled): Republicans in the state are looking to make the new 7th district a Republican one, rather than create a second majority-black district. And that could lead to some drama, not to mention legal action. Keep an eye on what Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (D), the member in the only current majority-black district, does. He’s been pushing for a second majority-black district in the past, but the GOP controls the process, so he may have to hope for the courts to weigh in.

7. Michigan (Republican controlled): The Wolverine State redraw appears to be going as-expected. A draft GOP plan published by the Detroit News last week combined Democratic Reps. Gary Peters and Sandy Levin into the same district, while shoring up Republicans like Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, Tim Walberg and Dan Benishek. The state is losing a seat, so someone had to be drawn together, and given the GOP’s control over the process and the realities of the map, Peters and Levin were the most obvious targets. The Democrats, as is to be expected, are crying foul. Republicans would be turning a 9-6 edge in the state’s delegation into a 9-5 advantage if the map goes forward.

6. New York (Split control): Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul’s upset victory in the 26th district special election last month has also upset redistricting plans in the Empire State. New York is losing two seats, and with both parties controlling one chamber of the state legislature, the expectation was that one upstate Republican and one downstate Democrat would go. Hochul’s win makes that math more complicated. It will be hard to eliminate her sprawling western New York district, but if Democrats want her to keep her conservative-leaning seat for another term, they will have to tweak the map to help her out. There’s some chatter that Democrats might target another upstate member of the delegation instead – meaning that Democratic Reps. Brian Higgins and Louise Slaughter are probably more nervous than they were two weeks ago.

5. California (Commission control): Redistricting nerds everywhere are waiting in anticipation of what the new California citizens’ redistricting commission will do. We’ll get a preview June 10 when the commission is set to introduce its first draft proposals — something analysts are already suggesting may amount to an “earthquake.” The reason there is so much intrigue is that the commission is supposed to disregard incumbents’ homes, which could lead to significant upheaval on a map that is gerrymandered extremely well to protect incumbents (only one of 53 seats switched hands this past decade). Think about the number of incumbents drawn together in Illinois, but with 53 seats instead of 19. Chills! (For more, see our January piece on the map.)

4. Florida (Republican controlled): The Justice Department earlier this week gave pre-clearance to a pair of redistricting measures passed by voters in November’s election that could rein in the GOP’s ability to expand the map in redistricting. Republicans currently control the process and 19 of 25 congressional seats, with the state gaining two seats. Republicans have a great map right now, given that Florida is a swing state, but if the courts interpret the measures, which seek to prevent gerrymandering, strictly, the current GOP gerrymander could unravel. Democrats think this could cost the GOP several seats, which would put it on par with Illinois and North Carolina for big swings in their direction. If the measures don’t pass muster, however, Republicans may even be able to gain the two new seats. (For more on this, see our piece from February.)

3. North Carolina (Republican controlled): If you’re looking for the Republicans’ version of Illinois, this is it. Democrats control 7 of 13 seats in the delegation thanks to their own very successful gerrymander of 2001 but Republicans control the redistricting process this time around. (Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue does not have veto power). Republicans could add upwards of three new seats by going after some combination of Democratic Reps. Brad Miller, Larry Kissell, Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler. Given what just happened in Texas and Illinois, look for something rather aggressive. But Republicans need to be wary of over-extending themselves. This state isn’t as red as it once was.

2. Texas (Republican controlled): It looked like Republicans might fail to even pass a congressional map in the Lonestar State, which would have sent the issue to the courts and jeopardized plenty of GOP seats. But Republicans earlier this week proposed a map, Gov. Rick Perry (R) has called a special session, and state lawmakers are preparing to get their hands dirty. The big question: The proposed GOP map creates only one new Hispanic district, but Democrats and Hispanic groups contend there should be another one, likely in the Dallas area. If the GOP passes the map in its current form (or close to it), the Justice Department or the courts could rule that they violated minority-protection aspects of the Voting Rights Act. The current map would likely give Republicans three of the four new districts and Democrats one, for a net GOP gain of two seats and a 26-to-10 advantage in the state’s delegation.

1. Illinois (Democratic controlled): The overhaul that occurred in the Prairie State was bigger than most anyone expected, and experts say that it could shift anywhere from three to six Republican seats into Democratic control. The strategy was simple: scramble the eggs. Democrats used the time-honored tactic of putting as many Republican voters into relatively few districts, of course, but they also paired up incumbents all over the place — sometimes putting their homes right near the border of a different district. Already, a primary matchup between GOP Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Don Manzullo is materializing, and there could be many more on the way. At the same time, the overall map isn’t an overwhelming partisan gerrymander; in fact, GOP governor candidate Bill Brady won 10 of the 18 new districts in 2010. That suggests short-term gains for Democrats, but potential trouble down the road. Of course, we’re still waiting for Gov. Pat Quinn (D) to sign the bill.

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

 
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