(Bloomberg) — Democratic and Republican state legislatures have put the competitive congressional district on the endangered species list, bolstering the GOP advantage in this year’s midterm elections but also setting up an even more polarized Congress next year.
The definition of a competitive seat varies.
Different groups pin the decrease, compared with the old maps, as anywhere from seven to 16 seats. But they are considered seats where either party has a shot at winning.
There are just 13 toss-up seats out of the 269 districts in redistricting completed so far, according to ratings from the non-partisan Cook Political Report. The U.S. has 435 congressional districts and not all state maps are yet completed, with some facing legal challenges.
Partisan lawmakers have turned old-fashioned gerrymandering — the designing of congressional district maps for political advantage — into a high-tech art form, using sophisticated computer modeling to insulate incumbents and diffuse voters who favor the minority party.
That process gives most lawmakers insurmountable double-digit edges heading into re-election campaigns, setting up a new Congress with scant reason to work together in order to guarantee their own re-elections.
Politically, Democrats are on the defensive. President Joe Biden’s first year in office was marked by rising inflation, a raging pandemic and increasing tension with Russia. If Republicans win control of even one chamber of Congress, Biden’s already-faltering domestic agenda will be essentially dead as he looks to run for re-election in 2024.
But unexpectedly, Cook on Thursday forecast that Democrats are on track to gain as many as three seats from redistricting, given developments in New York, Pennsylvania and Alabama, where a court struck down a map on grounds it discriminated against Black voters, who overwhelmingly vote Democrat. On Friday, North Carolina’s supreme court threw out Republican-drawn congressional and legislative maps, saying they violate the state constitution.
Redistricting was a process designed to apportion power among states in the form of congressional districts according to their population, as measured by the Census every 10 years.
This year, Republicans who control redistricting in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and other states have made GOP seats safer, in part by targeting for redesign the suburban districts that have been trending Democratic and adding in rural areas that overwhelmingly favor the GOP.
The 24th District in Texas was changed from one that Biden carried by more than 5 percentage points in 2020 to one he would have lost by 12 points, for example, based on the new boundaries that shift Black and Latino voters in Dallas County into other districts and add White Republicans from Tarrant County, which includes neighboring Fort Worth.
At the same time, Democrats are gerrymandering districts in Illinois, New York and other states where they control the process to maximize their chances for winning new seats, said Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Gerrymandering has been offset somewhat in states such as Colorado where the process is run by nonpartisan commissions, which have tended to draw more competitive districts.
The reduction in competitive districts could also make it harder for Democrats to win back the House majority during the next decade if they lose control in 2022 because most maps being drawn now will remain in place until after the 2030 Census, Li said.
“The loss of competition is one of the big stories of this decade,” Li said.
‘Politically, It Is Looking Bleak’
Texas exemplifies the trend to use gerrymandering to reduce competition. There were 10 congressional districts in Texas in 2020 where the margin between Biden and Donald Trump was within 4 points, but the new map has only one such competitive district.
“Politically, it is looking bleak, to be perfectly honest,” said 2020 Democratic congressional candidate Candace Valenzuela, who came within 4,600 votes of becoming the first Black Latina in Congress from Texas’ 24th District. “This isn’t a Democrat-Republican problem. It’s going to be an American problem, if it isn’t already.”
The full impact of the 2022 vote is not yet set as the battle over the maps is still playing out in courts and state legislatures.
The Texas congressional map, which sets boundaries for 38 districts, or 8% of the entire U.S. House of Representatives, will be used unless a court intervenes. The U.S. Justice Department is challenging it in court.
The Ohio Supreme Court invalidated the state’s congressional map on Jan. 14, ruling that it unconstitutionally favored Republicans, and ordered the Ohio Legislature to pass a new map in 30 days.
Last month, federal judges in Alabama ruled that a proposed map violated the Voting Rights Act by not carving out districts in proportion to the state’s Black population. The state appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Harrell Kirstein, a spokesman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, says the loss of competitive seats will hurt Democrats by leaving fewer opportunities to flip seats. She cited an NDRC analysis that showed that if no districts were gerrymandered, there would be a 40% increase in competitive seats, rather than a decrease, largely because of demographic shifts.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Tim Persico said that “Neither side can gerrymander their way to a majority, but they can make it harder to win the majority.”
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