The Shape of Redistricting, Part I: Iowa, Louisiana, Arkansas

by Stuart Rothenberg April 26, 2011 · 9:31 AM EDT

With redistricting completed in three states — Iowa, Louisiana and Arkansas — Democratic and Republican strategists are trying to look on the bright side. In fact, both sides have some reason for disappointment, but also for feeling relieved.

Louisiana lost one district, and Republicans were guaranteed the loss of a seat because all but one of the state’s districts now have sitting Republican Members and the state’s African-American population, centered in New Orleans, is guaranteed one seat.

The process in Louisiana was messier than it needed to be, as Republican legislators struggled to produce a map that would satisfy the Congressional delegation.

Rep. Charles Boustany (R) didn’t win himself popularity points by supporting a Democratic proposal that could have jeopardized a second Republican seat. In the end, though, the Member put at greatest jeopardy is Rep. Jeff Landry (R), whose district was cannibalized. He is expected to challenge Boustany.

Geographically, Boustany starts with the edge in a primary, but smart observers argue Landry is a better campaigner and shouldn’t be dismissed.

Republican incumbents in the Bayou State should be able to hold their districts in 2012, and Democrats probably will need another wave election (or a set of unusual circumstances) to win seats in the state.

Democrats hope to be able to compete in the new 4th district, which covers the northwest corner of the state. President Barack Obama drew just under 40 percent of the vote there, his second-best showing in the state.

The outcome in Iowa initially looks disappointing for Republicans, but by the time November 2012 rolls around, that may change.

Iowa lost a district, taking it from five to four, and the new map throws the only two Republicans together in the same northwest Iowa district.

Most of the staunchest Republican territory in the redrawn 4th district currently belongs to conservative firebrand Rep. Steve King (R), so the other Republican in the district, Rep. Tom Latham, will run against another incumbent, Rep. Leonard Boswell (D), in the redrawn 3rd district, which includes Polk County (Des Moines) and runs southwest to the Nebraska and Missouri borders.

At 77, Boswell is 15 years older than Latham. The eight-term Democrat has said he is running for re-election, and he has reassembled his team from past races. Of the 16 counties in the new 3rd, Boswell now represents just one, Polk, by far the most populous, while Latham represents three.

Democrats have a narrow registration advantage in the new district, but it went for President George W. Bush over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by 5 points in 2004, and both Obama and Kerry ran a couple of points worse in the new 3rd district than they did statewide.

Just as important is that Latham is one of Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) closest friends in Congress, so Latham shouldn’t have fundraising problems in a run against Boswell. The Boswell-Latham contest starts as a tossup.

Not surprisingly, some have predicted that Boswell will retire rather than face off against Latham, leaving the Democratic nomination to Christie Vilsack, wife of the former governor and current secretary of Agriculture. But Vilsack has announced that she will challenge King in a large district that includes northwest and north-central Iowa.

King’s new district is more competitive than his old one, but it still leans Republican. As Sioux City political writer Bret Hayworth observed recently, Republicans have a 40,000-registered-voter advantage in the district, and it “has voted demonstratively Republican in ‘good’ GOP national years ... and narrowly for Republicans in years when Democrats had momentum nationally.”

Hayworth notes that Democrat Tom Vilsack’s gubernatorial win in 2002 was “the outlier,” and Christie Vilsack will need to win support from moderate Republicans who find King too conservative if she has a chance to pull off the upset.

Republicans are disappointed in the Iowa map, which they hoped would force two Democrats, Rep. Bruce Braley and Rep. Dave Loebsack, to run against each other. That didn’t happen, and Democrats seem to like the new Iowa map, believing that at least one Republican seat will be lost next year.

The third early state to complete redistricting, Arkansas, is controlled completely by Democrats, and while the new lines seem to give Democrats chances to regain two of the Congressional districts they just lost, observers on both sides of the aisle agree that Democratic state legislators didn’t produce a map that improves Democratic opportunities noticeably.

GOP strategists have been worried that Arkansas legislators would craft two solidly Republican districts and two Democratic-leaning districts — one in the southern part of the state and one either around Little Rock or in the northeastern part of the state. Instead, Democratic legislators drew a Republican district in the northwest corner and three generally competitive districts in the rest of the state.

One of the reasons for the new lines was Democratic Rep. Mike Ross’ desire to have his southern Arkansas district reach up to the northwest to give him a presence — and an opportunity to introduce himself to and ingratiate himself with voters — in that part of the state before his expected 2014 gubernatorial bid.

But by stretching Ross’ district into reliably Republican territory in northwest Arkansas, Democratic legislators made Ross’ 4th district more difficult for his party to hold if and when he runs statewide.

With Democrats in complete control of only a handful of states where they could improve their standing through redistricting, Arkansas was a place where national Democratic partisans hoped to beef up the party’s prospects and cost Republicans at least one seat. That does not appear to have happened, which is why Republican operatives are smiling about the state’s new map.

Overall, party insiders on both sides of the aisle feel that the early trio of maps could have been better, but they believe they can at least hold their own with the new lines.