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McNeely: Democrats might not fare so bad on redistricting

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Dave McNeely

Dave McNeely

A word of caution for those passionate Democrats who believe Republican gerrymandering will cost them the U.S. House in the 2022 elections: Don’t use that straight razor on your wrist just yet. Things may be better than you’ve been led to believe.

That’s the observation from Paul Waldman, a progressive columnist for the Plum Line blog, overseen by The Washington Post, in a Dec. 23 column.

Several analysts have noted that in the 2020 elections, which produced most state legislators in power during the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional and legislative districts in 2021 following the census, Democrats failed to take over control of any additional state legislatures. Their majority in the U.S. House also dropped more than a dozen seats.

Republicans control more state legislatures and more redistricting processes, while in several states under Democratic rule, redistricting is handled by independent commissions.

So some observers thought that Republicans might win control of the House through gerrymandering redistricting alone, without increasing their vote share in the 2022 elections.

But recently, Waldman notes, that thinking seems to have taken “a dramatic shift.” Now, observers say, there may be no major Republican gains, or Democrats might actually pick up a few seats.

Some key factors:

Republicans had so aggressively gerrymandered following the 2010 census that they left themselves little room to add to their advantage.

Democrats, in the few states in which they had the upper hand, were gerrymandering themselves.

Republicans in some situations decided to solidify their current positions rather than overplay their hand and wind up with riskier seats.

And, the independent redistricting commissions did not hurt Democrats as much as some had feared.

As an illustration, Waldman compares the experience in the nation’s two most populous states: California, which is a decidedly blue (Democratic) state, and Texas, which is bright red (Republican).

Redistricting in Texas was overseen by the Republican-controlled legislature, while California redistricting is performed by an independent redistricting commission. Those conditions could lead to presuming that the Republicans stood to gain significantly in House seats.

But that didn’t happen. The Republican Texas legislators chose to protect their current holdings rather than attempt to increase their advantage and risk overplaying their hand and weakening their future outlook in the blue-trending Lone Star State.

Republicans hold 23 of Texas’s 36 House seats to the Democrats’ 13.

The Republicans in control of redistricting in 2021 made sure there were as few competitive seats as possible.

As a result, the new map of the state’s 38 districts — up two from 36, thanks to re-allocation among the states to compensate for population changes — is drawn to have 24 safe Republican seats, while Democrats have 13. Only one is considered competitive in the general election, and the Republicans might win it.

So Republicans would only gain one, or possibly two, seats in Texas.

Meanwhile in California, where a bipartisan commission draws the maps, the partisan breakdown of the state’s 53 House members is 42 Democrats to 11 Republicans. California is losing one seat due to reapportionment.

Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report says “redistricting is shaping up to be close to a wash.”

That said, there are still lawsuits pending in courts including Texas, Ohio and North Carolina, charging that Republican redistricting of congressional maps was too extreme. Among the cases challenging Texas is one filed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Democrats who also have filed suits against Texas districts contend that the process has been racially discriminatory.

Texas gained 4 million people since the 2010 census. That earned the state two additional seats in the U.S. House.

But although 95 percent of the increase is people of color, that has not resulted in more districts that can be won by them.

While there hasn’t been much written about it yet, there is a good chance that some of the suits may not be completed for several months. With party primaries scheduled for March 1, that could mean elections have to be postponed. It’s happened before.

So stay tuned to see how rapidly these suits can be tried and what effect it may have on this year’s elections.

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— Dave McNeely is an Austin-based columnist who covers Texas politics.

Today's Bible verse

“Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”

James 1:2-3

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