The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House Democrats scramble after redistricting lessens competitive edge

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, speaks at a news conference at the 2022 House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference on March 10 in Philadelphia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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Democrats unexpectedly breathed a sigh of relief earlier this year when it became clear that newly redrawn congressional districts would give them a slight competitive edge over the next decade. But their worry sharply returned this month as favorable maps in Florida and New York were struck down and replaced with district lines that are likely to make it even more difficult to keep their already slim majority in the House.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) vetoed the maps passed by the state legislature and pressed for one favorable to the GOP by erasing a Black-majority district around Jacksonville. In New York, a judge approved a widely disputed map early Saturday that, if upheld, would lead to Democrats losing at least one colleague amid an internal party fight this past week over who was to blame and who would run where.

In a good year, Democrats could win two more seats than they have now, but in a difficult year, as 2022 is expected to be, they could lose as many as three. In the November midterm election, Republicans need to net only five seats to regain the House majority, a possibility that is likely given the historic trend of a first-term president’s party losing in the midterm election.

Even with the map changes this month, independent analysts say that Democrats remain competitive nationwide after adding three new districts more favorable to President Biden versus the current lines that were drawn in 2010. Redistricting, however, has eliminated 18 competitive seats according to a Washington Post analysis, making it less likely that either party can have more of an edge in future races.

How redistricting is shaping the 2022 U.S. House map

Democrats were hoping that new congressional maps, especially in predominantly blue states like New York, could make up for likely losses in swing districts. Democratic leaders in states like California, Colorado and Oregon established independent commissions to more transparently draw new district lines that they hoped would be less partisan and more representative — but doing so seems to have put the party at a disadvantage given that Republicans in several states, including DeSantis, were still determined to draw maps as favorably as possible for their party.

The courts have been a check on those sorts of efforts, and Democrats notched some early wins — which have since been reversed. Alabama Republicans persuaded the Supreme Court to override a lower court’s ruling that would have forced the state to draw two congressional districts with large Black voting blocs. Ohio Republicans, whose congressional map has repeatedly been ruled by the state Supreme Court an unconstitutional gerrymander, are still being allowed to use it for this year’s elections.

Democrats in both Florida and New York say they got a raw deal, though for different reasons.

The Florida Senate in January agreed on a map that both parties determined was fair and wouldn’t be challenged in court. But DeSantis, days before the vote, threw the process into chaos by presenting his own version, which drastically altered districts at the expense of Black voters.

The Florida House then drew new lines intended to appease DeSantis, dramatically shrinking a majority Black district that ran across the state’s entire northern border — currently represented by Democratic Rep. Al Lawson — to a smaller one surrounding Jacksonville. DeSantis vetoed both maps, and the legislature eventually passed a map drawn by the governor.

A GOP-appointed circuit court judge recently ruled that Lawson’s seat should be reinstated, which DeSantis appealed. On Friday, a Florida appellate court reinstated DeSantis’s map, eliminating the district once again.

“[DeSantis] said he didn’t think that race should be considered, but those maps ended up tearing communities in half. And that violated our fair districting standards. So he really sought to put his thumb on the scales here,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) said.

While the overall map is less favorable to Democrats, Rep. Darren Soto (D) — who is from the Orlando area — said Democrats can still be competitive over the next decade given that seats in the Tampa Bay and Miami areas remain swing districts.

The real drama is playing out in New York, where ample time was given to propose maps. Many New York Democrats are angry with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) as well as Jonathan Cervas, a redistricting expert and the “special master” who drew the latest map, which initially placed eight Democrats’ homes outside their current districts and forced two member-on-member primaries.

In 2014, New York voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative intended to make redistricting less partisan. It set up a 10-member advisory commission outside the legislature to draw maps for state lawmakers to approve.

But the setup was deeply flawed, voting rights advocates have argued, because the commission could be overruled by the legislature and was composed of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, creating a deadlock. The commissioners, most appointed by state politicians, ended up entrenched in their own partisan stalemate and never were able to agree on one map to send to Albany.

So, the state Democrats — with control over all of government for the first time in 100 years — took the reins and drew a map that removed a district and could have grown their congressional delegation by as many as three seats.

The state’s high court struck down the congressional lines, ruling them invalid because the constitution directed the advisory commission to first draw the maps. The judges also found the map to be overly partisan.

A senior New York Democratic official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, said the “courts hijacked the redistricting process.” The Democrat scoffed at complaints that the legislature’s gerrymander was too extreme and thus exposed it to a legal challenge. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) had publicly suggested a version that was more partisan than the one the New York Democrats ultimately drew, the state official said.

“Our delegation was thrilled with us and wanted us to go further, we were getting pats on the backs and hurrahs,” the Democrat said. “I promise you no one was suggesting we be less aggressive.”

New York congressional Democrats were seething at the outcome, calling it a racist gerrymander because it breaks up communities of color, diluting Latino communities and forcing Black members to determine where to run, they said. Many groups, including the DCCC, submitted letters making these points for the Steuben County Supreme Court to consider before its final decision issued Friday. That appears to have had some influence by rejoining some minority neighborhoods that were split in Monday’s proposed map and moving some members’ residences back into their districts.

“The iconic neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant has been restored to its rightful place in Central Brooklyn. But severe problems remain with historically Black, Latino and Jewish districts throughout New York City,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) said in a tweet Saturday. “Stay tuned.”

In a statement issued by the DCCC on Saturday, Maloney accused the judge of unfair bias that favored Republicans, saying Democrats “will continue fighting to get fair maps that reflect the will of the voters of New York.” Court proceedings, however, could take months, making it incredibly difficult to enact finalized maps during this election.

The approved map also pits Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) against each other, two members from Manhattan who serve as the top Democrats on high-ranking committees.

A decision made by Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) to run in another district may have quelled tensions between lawmakers that permeated this past week in Washington. Sean Patrick Maloney declared Monday that he would run in the proposed 17th District, challengingJones , saying that he does not want to uproot his family from their home, which is based within the current district lines. His children are of college age, and one commutes to school from home.

Which congressional district am I in?

“I’m just running where I landed,” Maloney said at a news conference Tuesday. “If someone else is looking at the district as well, obviously we’ll try and work through that as colleagues and friends. Ultimately this is up to the voters, and that’s what it should be.”

His allies defended Maloney’s decision, noting he was better suited for the district because Jones, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is too liberal to represent the area. The current lines encompass roughly 75 percent of the district Jones won in 2020.

In response to such assertions, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) tweeted Wednesday: “The thinly veiled racism here is profoundly disappointing. A black man is ideologically ill suited to represent a Westchester County District that he represents presently and won decisively in 2020? Outrageous.”

Maloney’s decision inflamed tensions within the House Democratic caucus, with many members privately musing whether he could lead as DCCC chairman — whose role is to protect the majority — while also challenging a member who could lose his seat. Several members and aides pondered whether it would be possible to recall Maloney because he was elected by members to the position.

In a scathing statement Thursday, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) directly blamed Maloney for seeking “a slightly easier district for himself” as a reason “two Black men who worked hard to represent their communities” could be pitted against each other, had Jones decided to run in the 16th Congressional District.

“The solution is simple. Congressman Maloney should run in his own district. I’ll be running in mine,” he said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) defended Maloney at a news conference Thursday, telling reporters she remains “very proud” of him and declining to get involved in any of the races.

Several House members privately expressed their frustration toward leaders, particularly Pelosi, for not twisting some members’ arms about whether it’s worth challenging certain incumbents.

Jones made a surprising announcement shortly after the judge’s finalized map was made public: Rather than defend his home turf in the Hudson Valley from Maloney, Jones said he has decided to seek reelection in the new 10th Congressional District, which envelopes Lower Manhattan and parts of liberal Brooklyn. He will face former New York mayor Bill de Blasio in the primary, after he announced a run Friday.

“This is the birthplace of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Since long before the Stonewall Uprising, queer people of color have sought refuge within its borders,” tweeted Jones, who is Black, gay and widely considered a rising star in the party. “I’m excited to make my case for why I’m the right person to lead this district.”

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