Redistricting’s Bottom Line

by Stuart Rothenberg March 20, 2012 · 1:58 PM EDT

Writing an analysis calculating the final result of redistricting is a little like putting a sign on your back that reads “kick me.”

No matter how methodical and dispassionate you try to be, you are forced to make plenty of subjective judgments, guaranteeing that you will be second-guessed by just about everyone.

But with redistricting virtually complete, it’s time to take stock.

This assessment looks at the effect of redistricting on the 2012 House elections. In other words, it takes into account candidates who are running in the new districts as well as those who dropped out because of the new lines. In a handful of states, new district lines have not been finalized and candidate recruiting is not over. So a few changes are still possible.

One more point, redistricting solidified incumbents who otherwise would have been vulnerable. Those changes almost certainly benefited Republicans dramatically, improving their bottom-line prospects and making it more difficult for Democrats to net the 25 seats needed to win back the majority.

By my count, redistricting had little or no partisan effect in half of the states. That’s not to say that a district here or there wasn’t made more Democratic or more Republican, or that seats in those states won’t flip (some will), only that redistricting changes in those 25 states did not dramatically affect the parties’ prospects this year.

Of the remaining 25 states, nine had very clean, very clear partisan changes, resulting primarily from the gain or loss of a single district. Included in this category are Louisiana (R-1), Massachusetts (D-1), Michigan (D-1), Missouri (D-1), New Jersey (D-1), Pennsylvania (D-1) and South Carolina (R+1). Two additional states fall in this category, Arkansas (R+1, D-1) and Indiana (R+1, D-1).

That leaves 16 states that are more complicated and require more difficult judgment calls.

Arizona adds a new district that favors Democrats, but it also flips the 1st district currently held by Rep. Paul Gosar (R), who is switching districts to run for another term. That’s not to say that the likely Democratic nominee in the 1st district, Ann Kirkpatrick, is certain to win, but the district now favors her. So Arizona is simply Democrats +2, Republicans -1.

California has a dramatically new map with a number of competitive districts. Democrats definitely will add seats, but how many? I’ll call it Democrats +3, Republicans -3.

Colorado’s new lines put Rep. Mike Coffman (R) in considerable danger, though it isn’t clear that Democrats have a candidate who can beat him. Still, we’ll give the Democrats this one. Democrats +1, Republicans -1.

Georgia looks easier. The Peach State’s new district is reliably Republican, while Democratic Rep. John Barrow’s seat was made significantly worse for him. Call Georgia Republicans +2, Democrats -1.

Illinois will see substantial Democratic gains. Three Republican seats look to be in the most trouble, those held by Reps. Robert Dold, Bobby Schilling and Joe Walsh. I will assume all three flip. Three other districts could also flip, those held by GOP Reps. Judy Biggert and Timothy Johnson and retiring Rep. Jerry Costello (D). I’ll assume that they don’t (or if they do, they end up canceling each other out). In addition, Two Republicans are paired together. That makes Illinois Republicans -4, Democrats +3.

Iowa is a tough call because Reps. Tom Latham (R) and Leonard Boswell (D) are thrown together in a district that, on paper, leans toward Boswell. But I believe Latham has the edge, so I’ll give it to him. I’ll assume that Rep. Steve King (R) holds his district, even though he faces a formidable challenge from Christie Vilsack (D). Given that, Iowa is Democrats -1.

Maryland Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R) finds his district dramatically changed, so the state is Democrats +1, Republicans -1. Nevada adds one district, which favors Democrats, and while Democrats hope to flip Rep. Joe Heck’s district, it’s far from a certainty. I’ll call Nevada Democrats +1.

New York is something of a surprise. While each party loses a district, Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul finds herself much worse off. I’ll guess her seat flips, making the count Democrats -2.

In North Carolina, four Democratic-held districts were redrawn to significantly favor the GOP. I start off assuming Democrats somehow hold Rep. Mike McIntyre’s seat but lose the others, so that makes the Tar Heel State Democrats -3, Republicans +3.

Ohio loses two districts, one for each party. Democrats -1, Republicans -1. Washington gains a Democratic seat (D+1). Oklahoma flips one Democratic seat to the GOP (R+1, D-1); Utah gets a new Republican seat, but I’ll also credit them with flipping Rep. Jim Matheson’s district. That makes Utah Democrats -1, Republicans +2.

That leaves two key states, Texas and Florida. The Lone Star State gains four seats, but Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D) finds his current seat flipping to the GOP. So, instead of Democrats +3, Republicans +1, I’ll call Texas D+2, R+2.

Finally, Florida saw a dramatic remap. I will call it Democrats +4, Republicans -2.

Add up all the numbers and you get Democrats +1 seat, Republicans -1. In other words, redistricting has been something of a wash.

Of course, this is a rough estimate right now. It not only could change — it will change. But no matter how you add up your own list, it’s hard to see redistricting having added many seats to one party or the other. After all the hoopla, redistricting isn’t likely to produce big partisan changes.

For Democrats, this is both good and bad news. Initial Republican claims of a windfall from redistricting failed to prove correct. Democrats were not buried by the redistricting cycle. But for a party needing to make a net gain of 25 seats to regain the House majority, a redistricting wash is simply not good enough.

Democrats needed to do better in New York, New Jersey, Arkansas and Texas than they did, and the expected huge gains in Illinois and California are looking shakier than they did initially.