It is hard to not over emphasize how important redistricting is to the political fortunes of state and national political parties. Coming into the election cycle, Republicans had complete control to draw 187 district compared to a mere 75 for Democrats. The balance of seats were in states with split control or controlled by “non – partisan” redistricting commissions. So, it was normal to hear analysts say the GOP would come out of redistricting well ahead of Democrats and win control of Congress simply out of redistricting (needing to net only five seats).
But, halfway or so through the redistricting cycle, it looks like Democrats may come out slightly ahead or basically even. Now, some caveats are in order. First, not all states have completed redistricting (including some big ones, like FL). Secondly, a number of states who have completed redistricting are currently facing lawsuits (TX, OH, NC for the GOP and MD and CA for Democrats). Lastly, the assumption one party is doing better than the other is based on what is known as the “partisan lean.”
An explanation is needed here. Basically, partisan lean can be described as the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. For example, if a state has a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean of R+5, that means it is 5 percentage points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole. Put another way, in an election that’s exactly tied nationally, we would expect Republicans to win that state by 5 points. So,
In the case of redistricting this go round and the partisan lean of a seat it is based on how Democrats did in 2020 which means a +4.5 D national lean. So, if a GOP seat has say an R + 3 lean it actually is +1.5 Democrat in a 50/50 environment. That is important to consider when one looks at the lean of a seat, because, let’s be honest for a second, shifts in the electorate occur election to election, so it is unlikely this is a great barometer of a lean of a seat going forward. That said, it is a measure that is actionable.
All that said, and caveats aside, how has redistricting shaken out so far? Well….. despite Democratic calls for limiting or abolishing gerrymandering in the states they have had compete control over the redistricting (NV, IL, OR and NM) process, they have maximized their advantages to the fullest. In Oregon, Democrats shored up two coastal seats and created a new Democratic leaning seat based around Bend. In New Mexico, Democrats turned the red leaning 2nd District into a swing to Dem leaning seat while swapping voters from the 1st and 3rd to make it bluer. In Nevada, Democrats tried to shore up 4th by taking voters from the deep blue Vegas based 3rd but in turn all they seemed to have done is make the 3rd AND 1st very, very swingy. Illinois is arguably the crown jewel of Democratic gerrymanders. Democrats drew three GOP vote sink seats to save the Rockford based 17th and also drew long, suburban based seats in the 14th, 11th, and 6th to outvote exurban, rural areas. This is not even considering a Maryland, where Democrats could have but did not eliminate the GOP leaning 1st, to Connecticut and Massachusetts where they enshrined their gerrymandered locks on the states congressional delegations.
So, what about the GOP so far? Well, they have not been sleeping either to be fair. In smaller states such as Utah and Montana, the GOP has shored up the Salt Lake City suburban based 4th, while the new Montana 1st is a strongly GOP leaning seat (Montana gained a seat in redistricting).
In Texas, Republicans chose to fine – tune their gerrymanders vs. try to pull an Illinois, New Mexico or Nevada where they seek to maximize their gains while jeopardizing the longer term. Texas gained two seats due to the Census and Republicans solidified their hold on suburban seats in Austin, Dallas and Houston. The massive Hispanic shift we saw in 2020 along the Rio Grande was exploited to turn the 15th into a swingy, trending right seat. The 23rd also was made more GOP leaning.
Arguably, Ohio and North Carolina saw the most ruthless GOP gerrymanders. In Ohio, the GOP simultaneously locked in their gerrymanders while also squeezing out an additional seat by turning the 13th blue. What is now a 12 – 4 delegation could become a 13 – 2 GOP edge. In North Carolina, an 8 – 5 map could be a 11 -3 GOP advantage with the formerly majority African – American 2nd turned into a trending red seat. Now, both these maps are being sued in state courts and both have a better than 50/50 shot of being overturned. It is doubtful however, the GOP will LOSE seats in these states either, however.
In smaller red states (NH) and blue states (ME) no huge swings occurred. In Maine, the Democrats made the conservative leaning a tad bluer while in New Hampshire the GOP basically will create a red based 1st district and a blue based 2nd District (yet to finalize the lines).
Finally, we come to states with independent redistricting commissions (a misnomer but we will go with it). In Colorado, the Commission drew a map where the 4 – 3 Dem majority could grow to 5 – 3 while the GOP in a good year could win the newly created suburban 8th and split the state’s delegation to Congress.
In Arizona, the Commission actually drew a strong map for the GOP (I am genuinely surprised by this). In a strong GOP year, the state’s delegation could flip from 5D – 4R to 2D – 7R. The 2nd turned from a slightly red leaning seat to conservative stronghold while the 4th is turned into a marginal seat. The trend lines under the new map favor Democrats, especially in the suburban based 1st and even Tucson based 6th, but short – term this is an awesome map for the GOP.
Then, we turn to California. And what a massive pile of partisan gerrymandering this map is. Like I said, the term “Independent” commission is a misnomer. The Commission managed to draw a map which saw almost every competitive GOP seat the party holds turn bluer. In turn, the GOP also lost a safe red seat and in a bad GOP year the party could shrink to a mere four of the state’s 52 seats. This is arguably the biggest gerrymander of any state in the entire country and unfortunately, due to Democratic control of the state, it is unlikely to change.
Then, we turn to the remaining states which have not finalized their lines (excluding New Hampshire discussed above). Georgia is likely to see blue based Atlanta suburban 6th turn red. The 2nd could be competitive in a GOP wave election but it is very strongly racially polarized. Michigan, where a redistricting commission is drawing the lines, is likely to be a wash. Virginia’s most likely map will go from 7D – 4R to 6D – 5R. Tennessee and Kentucky have not completed their lines but the debate at this point is simply how far the dominant GOP wants to go. In Tennessee, state Democrats released a map which keeps the 2D – 7R split but Republicans could easily split apart the Nashville based 5th as it is not a Voting Rights Act mandated majority – minority district. Internal state party politics will dictate whether they will or not. Similarly, in Kentucky, the state GOP can split apart the Louisville based 3rd, but internal party politics will dictate whether they do or not. Though Kentucky has a Democratic governor the GOP has the majorities to overturn a veto and the district’s Democratic Rep is also retiring. How sturdy both gerrymanders will be long – term in both states also matters.
Then we come to the remaining big two, New York (blue) and Florida (red). In New York, while a nominal redistricting commission released draft maps, the Democratic controlled legislature does not need to follow them and probably won’t. In fact, the Democratic legislature has telegraphed they would like to eliminate the Stanton Island based 7th and turn at least one Long Island seat blue (either the 14th or the 1st). The GOP leaning 22nd or 23rd is also likely to be eliminated as a result of the state losing a seat.
Florida is an interesting case study in just how far the GOP wants to challenge anti – gerrymandering state amendments. In 2010, the state’s voters passed an anti – gerrymandering initiative and old GOP maps fell soon after. Senate Republicans have released set of maps which largely preserve the status quo resulting in a 12D – 15R map turning into a 12D – 16 R map. But, House Republicans came out with their own plans which result in maps likely to produce anything from a low end of 16 GOP seats to a high of 18. Predicting this might happen, Democratic rising star Stephanie Murphy announced her resignation as in every House map her Orange County based seat is dissected.
Obviously, without every state having completed their process it is impossible to say who has definitely won or lost. But, it is clear a number of factors were at work. Democrats, realizing they need additional seats to keep their Congressional majority due to the inefficient geographic distribution of their voters took the risk of maximizing their gerrymanders (assuming they hold). Republicans in states from TX to IN took the opportunity to lock in their majorities vs. expand them. This makes sense when one considers how strong party loyalty now is.
But, one has to ask just how strong any gerrymander is. Demographic, economic and class based changes in the electorate lead to Trump getting elected, Democrats gaining the House majority two years later, and a narrowly fought 2020 with a ton of surprises. No matter what either party does in any number of states, we should expect no different for the next decade.
Note: If I did not mention a state it assumes the status quo has largely prevailed (ie. Idaho, Alabama, Missisissipi, Washington, etc).