South Carolina Republicans struggle to draw new GOP seat

at 04:27 PM ET, 06/30/2011

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 South Carolina. (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 and Minnesota.)

Republicans in South Carolina may be handing the state’s new congressional seat to Democrats.

That’s if you believe those close to the process in the Palmetto State, where politics is truly a blood sport and the redistricting debate represents yet another characteristically hazardous political battle.

Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion, and they were widely expected to be able to draw the state’s new congressional district – the 7th – as a Republican seat. But internal squabbling is throwing that sure-thing into doubt.

Here’s what’s happening:

The state House passed a bill earlier this month that, as expected, put the new district in the fast-growing Pee Dee region in the northeastern corner of the state with Myrtle Beach as its population center. The state Senate had a similar map and was expected to follow suit — all with the support of the congressional delegation.

But this week, 10 state Senate Republicans joined state Senate Democrats in passing an alternative map that puts the new district in the southern part of the state, also known as Lowcountry. And Republican leaders are worried that the new map could not only cost them the new district, but also make things tougher for other Republicans. (The GOP currently has a five-to-one majority in the congressional delegation.)

In fact, the worst thing that could happen for Republicans — and what Democrats appear to be hoping for — is a deadlock in the state legislature on a map. That would hand the line-drawing to a three-judge panel; two of those judges would be appointees of President Obama.

“If they don’t work it out, then the Obama judges draw it ... in which case, I think, the Obama judges will draw a plan that helps get another Democrat rather than a plan that is based on population shifts,” said GOP consultant Wesley Donehue. “There’s a lot of risk.”

The situation harkens back to what we saw in Louisiana earlier this year, when a mutiny in the state Senate caused similar uncertainty for some of the congressional delegation’s Republicans.

That situation eventually was resolved, and GOP leaders got more or less what they had wanted.

As in Louisiana, some Republicans say the current standoff is simply political gamesmanship and that things will all work out in the end.

But there is some reason to believe the South Carolina situation is different, and Republicans could wind up paying a real political price.

While the situation in Louisiana concerned relatively minor line shifts here and there, the two sides are far apart in South Carolina at the moment.

The House map was drawn by state Rep. Alan Clemmons (R), who represents Myrtle Beach and would almost definitely run for the new congressional seat.

Putting the new 7th district in the northeastern part of the state would push all the other districts to the west. Freshman Rep. Tim Scott (R), whose 1st district currently includes Myrtle Beach, would be given a more compact district around his home in Charleston. Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R) 2nd district would lose its Lowcountry territory, and freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney’s (R) 5th district would add a portion of Spartanburg County. All threeRepublicans would experience relatively little upheaval and remain politically safe.

Also safe under the House plan would be Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, the state’s lone Democrat, whose 6th district would actually increase its black majority to more than 57 percent.

The delegation more or less agreed to the House map, according to informed sources, with all parties going home happy.

Then things changed. Lowcountry state Sens. Larry Grooms and Tom Davis secured a bipartisan coalition that included eight other GOP state senators and 14 Democrats. They combined forces to pass a map that creates the new 7th district in Hilton Head-based Beaufort County.

The new district would combine Beaufort County with the area north of Charleston – currently represented by Clyburn and Scott. The rest of Scott’s district would remain similar, and he would keep all of Myrtle Beach-based Horry County. Clyburn would be given more territory around Columbia.

The big difference between the House and Senate maps is Clyburn’s district. Instead of increasing to 57 percent black — as it does under the House plan — the seat would be just 53 percent blackin the Senate proposal. Meanwhile, the new 7th would be 32 percent black, as opposed to 30 percent under the House plan.

By diluting the black vote in Clyburn’s district slightly, everyone around him would be in a little tougher situation in the Senate plan than under the House map. Because of this, Democrats feel like they have a better chance to win the new district and even take out a Republican or two.

There are also some black Democrats in the legislature in the Pee Dee area who would like to run for Congress one day but would not be able to win a Pee Dee district that includes Horry County. Under the Senate plan, Scott would keep Horry County, and they would merely have to wait for Clyburn to retire. (He will be 71 years old next month.)

Also worth considering: Democrats in the state legislature may do just about anything that would lead to a stalemate in hopes that the three-judge panel will draw the lines. Republicans worry that the panel might attempt to draw a second majority-black district that would be won by Democrats.

The state House will pick the issue up when it returns July 26. If it and the state Senate can’t agree, the matter goes to conference committee. If the chambers can’t agree on the conference committee version, then it would go to the judges — a nightmare scenario for Republicans.

In the end, South Carolina reinforces just how unpredictable redistricting can be. One party may control all the levers in a given state, but especially at the state legislative level, not all politics are partisan.

 
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