Redistricting Winner Is Still to Be Determined

by Stuart Rothenberg January 20, 2011 · 9:41 AM EST

Shortly after the 2010 census numbers were released, new Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel commented that the report “pours cold water on Republicans’ hype that redistricting is a disaster for Democrats.”

The New York lawmaker’s comment, I suppose, was a response to veteran GOP insider Ed Gillespie, who chairs the Republican State Leadership Committee. Gillespie has been quoted in multiple media reports as saying that, because of his party’s recent electoral successes in state races, redistricting will help Republicans gain or protect 15 to 25 seats in 2012.

Of course, it isn’t at all unusual for strategists from the two parties to differ over the potential fallout from redistricting.

I searched newspaper articles from a decade ago, before and during the last round of redistricting, and saw a public duel between Tom Davis, then the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Martin Frost, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at the same time.

Even after the 2002 elections, Davis and Frost couldn’t agree on who got the better of redistricting, though most nonpartisan handicappers and journalists thought the Republicans “won” redistricting.

Until lines are actually drawn, it’s hard to know whether Israel or Gillespie is right. And, as President Bill Clinton might say, any conclusion depends on the meaning of the word “disaster.”

Reapportionment moved more Congressional districts to the South and the West, with the bulk of the losses coming from the Northeast and around the Great Lakes.

Five of the eight states gaining districts were carried by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election, while seven of them went for President George W. Bush four years earlier. In contrast, eight of the 10 states losing seats went for then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in 2008, and six of the 10 were carried by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

But while reapportionment clearly benefits the GOP in the Electoral College, that doesn’t guarantee Republicans will benefit from the redrawing of districts in the 43 states that have more than a single at-large district.

My own state-by-state assessment suggests redistricting alone won’t net many more seats for the GOP than the party now has — a conclusion that seems to support Israel.

Republicans will create more GOP districts or benefit from fewer Democratic districts in North Carolina, Massachusetts and South Carolina, while Democrats should add seats or benefit from GOP losses in Illinois, Louisiana and Washington state. There will be partisan implications in other states, as well, of course.

But even though Republicans aren’t likely to add 15 to 20 new seats to their existing majority, redistricting across the country could well make it considerably more difficult for Democrats to reverse the results of the 2010 elections in 2012.

In that sense, at least, redistricting could be a serious setback for Democrats. This conclusion seems to support Gillespie.

Redistricting probably won’t be a windfall for the GOP in terms of adding new seats because the party was so successful in November. After their huge gains, Republican mapmakers in many states won’t be able to shore up Republican freshmen in districts that they never should have won and, at the same time, also eliminate more Democratic districts.

But the likelihood that Republicans will “only” be able to cement their strong position in the House rather than add to it is hardly grounds for celebrating by Democratic strategists. And that outcome certainly wouldn’t preclude the view that, ultimately, redistricting could be disastrous for Democrats.

After their legislative and gubernatorial victories over the past few cycles, Democratic strategists had every reason to think this time they would be able to redraw a number of large states or, at the very least, that they would be in a much stronger bargaining position than they were a decade ago.

After all, most of the current maps were drawn in 2001 and 2002, when Republican mapmakers in several key states — including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida — minimized Democratic opportunities (or, if you prefer, gerrymandered districts to benefit the GOP). Mid-decade redistricting by Republican state legislators in Texas and Georgia did the same thing.

But after the 2010 elections, many of those Democratic hopes of affecting redistricting are dashed.

Instead of winning gubernatorial races in Georgia, Florida and Texas, Democrats lost all three, as well as the top office in Ohio. Instead of retaining at least one legislative chamber in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, they lost both chambers in all three.

And instead of having total control in New York and North Carolina, as they expected, Democrats lost the New York state Senate and both chambers of the North Carolina Legislature (to say nothing of Wisconsin and Minnesota).

North Carolina was one of the Democrats’ successes in the last round of redistricting, so Republicans now have the opportunity to redraw the state dramatically to their advantage.

Of course, voters sometimes frustrate mapmakers in the first election after reapportionment, as happened in Georgia a decade ago. So we won’t know the winners and losers from redistricting until after the 2012 elections.

What is clear, however, is that Democrats hoped to be in a far stronger position in redistricting than they now find themselves, and it is Republicans who over the next 18 months will decide how far to push the envelope in state after state.