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Redistricting Wars Begin in Illinois

Redistricting Wars Begin in Illinois

By Sean Trende - June 7, 2011

For those who follow decennial redistricting carefully, the past few months have been like the "Phoney War" that preceded the German invasion of France in World War II. Both sides are eying each other warily, knowing full well that battle is inevitable, and waiting for the other to strike. Aside from Indiana Republicans weakening Democrat Joe Donnelly's seat significantly, most of the changes have been quiet, and will likely have little impact on the partisan balance in Congress.

Today, Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois (pictured) is expected to launch the first salvo of the 2012 redistricting wars by signing a bill that creates new congressional districts for the state. In a typical election, it should yield a 12-6 Democratic edge, with a possible 13-5 edge in a wave year. This would represent a loss of five Republican seats, more than reversing the GOP gains made in 2010. Consider: Democrats have to pick up 24 seats to retake control of the House. With this map, they are roughly 20 percent of the way there.

But the map also illustrates the peril of over-gerrymandering. There is a chance that the map spreads Democrats too thin. In a Republican wave year, it could still yield a heavily Republican delegation, especially if there are some unfortunately timed Democratic retirements. Similarly, if suburban America were to shift back toward Republicans as the party becomes more focused on fiscal conservatism, the Democratic map could come unraveled.

The basic theory behind the new map is pretty simple. The old lines provided for seven districts based in Cook County, five rural/small-town districts, and seven suburban/exurban districts. These latter districts are where Democrats wreaked the most havoc. The current suburban districts generally begin in the inner suburbs of Chicago, radiate out into the outer suburbs and, in some cases, into rural areas. These districts generally lean Republican, though not overwhelmingly so.

Democrats abandoned this approach and instead created three districts that can be thought of as concentric C's, which wrap around and take in the Republican exurbs and outer suburbs. Democrats then pushed a few of the heavily Democratic Chicago districts out into the suburbs somewhat, and brought the remaining districts into the inner suburbs, making a batch of districts that lean Democratic. In so doing, Democrats scrambled the lines enough that the homes of three Republican incumbents were placed in heavily Democratic districts, while two other freshmen Republicans, Joe Walsh and Randy Hultgren, were placed together.

To better understand the promise -- and peril -- of these districts, a closer inspection is needed.

Safe Democratic Districts (1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9)

The map retains three majority African-American districts, although all are now only narrowly so. Democrats also decided not to break up the famed Latino-majority "earmuffs" district; a narrow strip will still loop around African-American neighborhoods to join Puerto Ricans in Northwest Chicago with Mexican-Americans in Southwest Chicago. Incidentally, there are now enough Latino voters in the Chicago area to create two Latino majority districts; if a court decides that the Voting Rights Act requires two such districts, the whole map could unravel. In addition, Mike Quigley's and Jan Schakowsky's districts maintain a heavily Democratic lean to them, although they were pushed out into the suburbs a bit.

Safe Republican Districts (6, 14, 15, 16, 18)

Peter Roskam's 6th District was made safely Republican, while Joe Walsh was placed in the heavily exurban and Republican 14th District with Randy Hultgren. Don Manzullo's 16th District now wraps around from the Wisconsin border to the Indiana state line; it is heavily Republican. Finally, the downstate 15th and 18th were shored up a bit for the Republicans.

Not-Safe Districts (3, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17)

Six of the seven remaining districts will tend to elect Democrats, while the seventh will tend to elect Republicans. But it isn't as much of a sure thing as many analysts have claimed. These analysts have tended to look at the Obama vote percentage, which averages 59.8 percent in the six Democratic-leaning districts, and conclude that these are safely Democratic seats.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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