Redistricting: How Republicans Dodged a Bullet

Redistricting: How Republicans Dodged a Bullet
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Republicans were disappointed when the Supreme Court ruled that the Arizona redistricting panel was constitutional. They shouldn’t have been. Losing that case probably won’t affect Republicans that much. Winning, on the other hand, could have hurt them, badly.

Two states would have had to redraw all of their lines in the event of an unfavorable ruling: California and Arizona. In a best case scenario, Arizona would have netted Republicans two congressional seats and shored up a third, although Republicans would have been reluctant to spread themselves too thin.

But we also have to consider California.

California’s lines were also drawn by a nonpartisan commission. Republicans were disappointed they didn’t manage to win more seats under the newly drawn lines, but the Democratic legislature would likely have handed them an even worse outcome.

To examine the California maps, we will consider any district that has a partisan lean of more than four points to be a swing district (that is, the district’s vote for president minus the national vote for president is fewer than four points either way). Under the current maps (again, drawn by an independent commission) the state has 33 Democratic seats, 11 Republican seats, and nine swing seats.

To try to get an idea of what a Democratic legislature might do, I sat down with Dave’s Redistricting App, which gives you the partisan and population information for voting districts in a state and allows you to then draw your own district lines. So I sketched out a rudimentary map of what a properly motivated Democratic legislature might draw. I didn’t spend a ton of time on it, and to keep things simple, I kept intact the boundaries on the southern California districts with Hispanic populations in excess of 60 percent (as the Voting Rights Act arguably requires). 

The map is here:

California’s 53 congressional districts, as might be redrawn by a partisan legislature

Such a map would be much worse for Republicans than what the current commission’s lines look like. It creates 43 Democratic seats, seven Republican seats, and three swing seats. If the Democratic legislature were to draw something like this, you’d end up with 10 more safe Democrats and four fewer safe Republicans. In an average year, you’d probably see a GOP loss of six seats.

Now, you can argue that the California legislature would not draw a map like this, but would instead opt to protect its incumbents, as it did in 2000. But I doubt if it would choose to go that route today, for three reasons.

First, the partisanship of the state has shifted substantially toward Democrats since 2000. In that year, it had a number of incumbents it needed to protect; it has a few it would like to shore up today.

Second, the pressure from Nancy Pelosi to maximize Democratic gains in the state would be enormous today, since she would need those seats to help win back her speakership.

Third, while Democrats didn’t opt to maximize gains in 2000, they did in 1980, the previous time they had uniform control of redistricting. Republicans probably lost five seats due to the map, which Congressman Phil Burton (whose seat Pelosi now occupies) laughingly called his “contribution to modern art.”

So it isn’t like the party is naturally averse to aggressive gerrymandering. To be honest, this probably doesn’t represent the outer bounds of what Democrats could do in the state.

By playing with the lines of the VRA-protected districts, one could probably weaken some of the Republican-leaning Orange County/Riverside County seats in this map. Someone who knows California geography better than I do could probably draw more compact, Democratic-leaning districts as well. Others have done just that.

For an example of someone drawing a map that would elect 48 Democrats in a neutral year, see here. Here’s a map with just six safe Republican seats. Regardless, Republicans told themselves that things couldn’t get much worse for them in California if Democrats had drawn the maps. But this isn’t true. California is one of the few natural Democratic gerrymanders in the country, with Hispanic populations spread out in the suburbs and rural areas, and many moderate-to-liberal whites.

Democrats would clearly be able to squeeze out more than enough seats to make up for any Republican gains in Arizona. Of course, there’s an additional side to the ledger, which is that Democrats will now pursue independent commissions in states where Republicans have been drawing lines to their advantage, such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. But it isn’t clear that the electoral harm Republicans will suffer outweighs the harm they would suffer from a hyper-gerrymandered California.

The problem Democrats face is that all of these states are natural Republican gerrymanders, which would limit the number of seats Democrats could pick up. It’s conceivable that properly motivated panels would draw maps that maximized Democratic gains in these states under compact district lines, but that would require a huge number of judgment calls just happening to be made in the Democrats’ favor.

At least some of these states would end up like New Jersey, where the panel created an evenly matched congressional delegation in a heavily Democratic state. Even assuming that Democrats managed to get redistricting commissions in place in all of these states, and got friendly maps out of all of them (netting, say, 10 seats), Republicans would likely do the same in Illinois (indeed, they are trying an initiative on one right now).

A redistricting commission would probably lead to three or four more Republican seats in that state, mitigating Republican losses elsewhere. In other words, the worst case scenario with independent commissions is probably similar to the baseline case when a Democratic Party draws California. Republicans should like those odds.

Finally, everyone should remember that what goes around comes around. Independent commissions may cost Republicans seats today, but a good Democratic midterm in 2018 could give Democrats trifectas in many of these northern states. While geographic constraints make it difficult to draw overwhelmingly Democratic districts in these states, Democrats would certainly do better than the commissions will do. 

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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