GOP’s redistricting options limited

Protecting gains is likely focus

By Jennifer Steinhauer
New York Times / June 12, 2011

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WASHINGTON — On paper, the sweeping gains Republicans enjoyed last year in state houses across the country gave the party a profound advantage in the nascent and increasingly contentious power struggle to create new congressional districts.

But those gains are likely to add up to fewer than 10 seats in the House of Representatives, largely because Republicans took so many seats from Democrats in 2010 that there are not many left to change hands through redistricting.

As a result, Republican leaders are focusing on making sure that incumbents, especially their 87 freshmen, end up defending districts with even more Republican voters than they had in the last election, with the hope of ensuring that they maintain control of the House for the long term.

“The overwhelming success of Republicans in 2010 actually poses a problem for them,’’ said Michael McDonald, a senior fellow and redistricting analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “They can’t go much farther than they are, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use redistricting to shore up their incumbents and those who seem most vulnerable.’’

Compounding the Republicans’ problem, much of the nation’s population gains have been among Hispanics, who have tended to vote Democratic, or in areas where voters tend to be less friendly to Republicans.

Strict federal laws concerning areas that are dominated by minorities will also be an obstacle for the party in some states. For the first time since the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, a Democrat controls the Justice Department, which enforces the law, during a redistricting year.

Redistricting — a tedious and often litigious process that follows every 10-year census cycle — is largely a game of math and hope. Redistricting teams work for months to create maps based on population and demographic changes that have reshaped much of the country over the decade, preceded in more than a few cases by local party leaders hunkering down in back rooms over takeout food and considering their own fates along with those of their rivals.

While some states, notably California, have turned the process over to redistricting commissions or have laws that provide a counterweight to the political will of the majority party, most redistricting plans will come from state legislatures, with party politics setting the agenda. Republicans control 26 of those legislatures.

For states that have gained population in the last decade, and thus new congressional seats — such as Florida, Nevada, and Texas — the goal is to concentrate a party’s own voters into districts that it has newly won, or to place more voters of the opposing party into the new districts to strengthen the party’s chances in the old districts.

For instance, Texas Republicans are trying to make the best of their four new seats — gained almost exclusively through growth in the state’s Hispanic population — by making sure that two Democratic-leaning districts that Republicans won in the last election, in south and west Texas, are stuffed with more Republicans. They can do this in part by moving Hispanic neighborhoods out of those districts and consolidating them in one Democratic stronghold.

At the same time, in the Dallas area, Republicans are also seeking to scatter Hispanics into districts dominated by Republicans, to diffuse the influence of Hispanic voters there and protect Republican freshmen.

For states losing population, such as Michigan and New York, the goal is to force sitting members of the opposing party to face off in one compressed district.

Perhaps the most aggressive example of partisan maneuvering is in Illinois, which lost one of its 19 seats. Democrats have redrawn maps to hurt five Republican incumbents, making many of them face more Democratic voters in 2012.

A wild card in the process is the Voting Rights Act and how President Obama’s Justice Department enforces it. The law prohibits discrimination against members of a racial or minority language group. Part of the law affects only states that have a history of such problems. Those states must get approval from the US attorney general or Federal District Court in Washington for any change that affects voting.