Redistricting Success Often a Moving Target

by Nathan L. Gonzales July 14, 2011 · 10:44 AM EDT

While handicappers try to tally Democratic and Republican redistricting wins and losses in midcycle, the reality is that it could be a decade before either party can declare victory. When it comes to redistricting, how and when to define success isn’t always easy.

For now, both parties are focused on maximizing their advantage or minimizing their losses state by state in the effort to keep or retake the House majority next fall. But the stakes are much higher in the decennial process.

“In general, success is ending up with a set of districts, across the country, that securely holds the majority for a decade,” GOP redistricting veteran Tom Hofeller said.

But too often the prospects of short-term gains come into direct competition with a longer-lasting map.

“There is a temptation to stretch the rubber band too thin,” Hofeller said.

Ten years ago in Pennsylvania, Republicans used their map-drawing authority to turn an 11-10 advantage in the Congressional delegation into a 12-7 edge after the 2002 elections. They drew four Democratic incumbents into two districts, forcing Democrats to eat the Keystone State’s two-seat loss because of population decrease. And they would have had a 13-6 edge if they had known Rep. George Gekas (R) was going to run his campaign with his wife out of their minivan. The lack of a modern campaign resulted in him losing his Member-vs.-Member race against incumbent Democratic Rep. Tim Holden.

At the time, it was still easy to declare Republicans the redistricting winners. But over the long term, the definition of winning is much more complicated.

“From a state legislative perspective, ’02 was a success,” said Mark Campbell, a longtime GOP consultant and adviser to Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.). “From a Congressional point of view, it was adequate.”

For the first half of the decade, the Republican map delivered its intended result. But when the political climate shifted, independents turned against Republicans. By the time the 2008 elections were over, the Pennsylvania delegation flipped from a 12-7 Republican advantage to 12 Democrats and seven Republicans.

The GOP did a better job at the legislative level, retaining the state Senate majority and only narrowly losing the state House over two Democratic wave elections, through a map crafted by a bipartisan panel. 

When the political climate shifted once again last year, Republicans stormed back to a 12-7 edge in the delegation. They also took back the state House and extended the GOP majority in the state Senate.

In spite of Pennsylvania’s swings, at least one Democrat gives Republicans good marks for their nationwide effort.

“Republicans did a pretty masterful job 10 years ago,” a Democratic consultant said. If President George W. Bush wasn’t so unpopular, they would have controlled Congress for the decade, the source said.

The consultant, who is no stranger to redistricting, said the GOP struck the right balance, making its own seats more competitive in order to create takeover opportunities. The source said even the best intentions couldn’t have counterbalanced Bush’s tumble and the national wave elections.

“You can’t protect yourself from that,” the consultant said.

The art of redistricting can be seen in the creative drawing of the districts, but the science is in understanding future behavior. Drawing new lines is more than analyzing past election results. It’s about matching past performance with population trends and projecting where political attitudes might shift.

The party that best understands today’s growth areas in Nevada, Florida, Texas and North Carolina could be declared the redistricting winner a decade from now.

Indeed, Democrats believe Republican efforts to maximize redistricting authority in Texas and North Carolina in the 2012 elections will provide more opportunities for their rivals later in the decade.

Even GOP sources contacted for this story disagree on how Republicans should handle Texas. It appears the party will try to gain three of the state’s four new districts. Some strategists believe a 2-2 split is more sustainable during the decade, considering the growth in the Hispanic community.

And Republicans believe Democrats overextended themselves in Illinois by drawing a “two-year map.” The GOP sees more opportunities once President Barack Obama doesn’t top his home-state ballot and are looking to 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 to reclaim seats.

Democrats disagree, saying if there is a risk, it’s one they’re willing to take.

“Our concern is having a durable majority, but you have to get to a majority first,” one Democratic strategist said, laughing.

At times, redistricting requires patience. In Maryland, for example, Democrats in charge of drawing new lines are trying to make GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett’s district a couple of points more Democratic. He might not be vulnerable in 2012, but Democrats believe future growth in the area will put the seat into play. Bartlett, 85, often appears on retirement watch lists.

But Maryland is also an example of each party’s struggle to get Members to agree on ways to achieve success.

Some Democrats are frustrated with Rep. Donna Edwards’ unwillingness to part with some Democratic voters in order to make freshman GOP Rep. Andy Harris more vulnerable.

“The goal is a 10-year map, but short-term success is a delegation that agrees,” one GOP operative said. Getting Members in each state to sign off is often critical to getting a new map passed in the first place.

Republicans had their own intraparty squabbling in Louisiana and Pennsylvania, even though they control the mapmaking process in each state. Some Pennsylvania Republicans have been frustrated with Rep. Joe Pitts’ unwillingness to part with some GOP voters in order to make a couple of his colleagues a little safer.

But Republican Members in North Carolina appear willing to take on more competitive districts in order to give the party more opportunities elsewhere. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R) will likely take the Democratic city of Asheville in order to help give Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler the most Republican district in the state.

Redistricting practitioners caution that only so much can be done during the redistricting process. Candidates and campaigns still matter, and trying to plan for a worst-case political scenario can leave a party short of competitive seats needed to win a majority.