Politics

Democrats Could Have Gerrymandered Away a GOP Seat. Why Didn’t They?

In Maryland, Democrats had the chance to go for the jugular. Here’s what happened instead.

Congressional district map of Maryland with seven districts in different shades of blue and one red district encompassing the Eastern Shore and crossing the bay into Baltimore and Anne Arundel County
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Rbiedermann/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

In the late night hours following the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Maryland Rep. Andy Harris found himself in the middle of a fight.

The hard-right member, and the only Republican in Maryland’s delegation, had spoken out against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes during a debate on the House floor. Later that night, Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb said in a speech that the Republican objectors should’ve been “ashamed” of their “lies,” especially after what they had seen earlier in the day. A shouting match, and then a confrontation in the aisle between the two sides, ensued, prompting the deputy sergeant-at-arms to get in the middle and break things up. The whole thing was defused before coming to blows, but Harris would later vote with 137 of his House Republican colleagues to uphold the objection. A couple of weeks later, after new security measures had been put in place at the Capitol, Harris was caught by security carrying a gun outside of the House floor.

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This is a member of Congress whom Maryland Democrats, in complete control over their redistricting process given their state legislative supermajorities, had a chance to draw into oblivion ahead of the next election cycle. In doing so, they could not only have gotten rid of a representative Democrats consider one of the worst of the worst, but they could’ve helped the national Democratic Party counteract Republicans’ national redistricting advantage ahead of the 2022 midterms. Democrats have only a few states where they can play offense in redistricting, and Maryland is one of them.

And yet. When Maryland Democrats sat down to draw a new map, one that could have gone from a 7–1 Democratic advantage to an easy 8–0 shutout, they flinched. The map that the state’s General Assembly passed this week would make Harris’ district more competitive, but FiveThirtyEight still rates it as Republican-leaning, as does the Cook Political Report.

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The decision not to go all-out split Maryland Democrats, some of whom had district interests they wanted to protect, and some who were just uncomfortable pursuing a maximal gerrymandering strategy in their state while the national party has spent years trying to ban partisan gerrymandering.

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And it’s left national Democrats furious.

Why, they ask, when Republicans are using their redistricting advantage liberally across the country, are Maryland Democrats extending a lifeline in the ’22 midterms to Andy Harris? Why, if Republicans insist on blocking the national partisan gerrymandering ban that Democrats have been pushing, shouldn’t Maryland go for the jugular?

Those Maryland Democrats who staved off an 8–0 Democratic map “should not content themselves with some sort of good-government, everybody-high-five, we-kept-ourselves-pure” attitude, as one national Democratic strategist told me. “They are protecting Andy Harris and risking all of their supposed progressive goals. That is what they are doing.”

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Maryland is one of the bluest states in the country. Joe Biden won it by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in 2020. There are more than enough Democrats, between the D.C. metropolitan area, Baltimore, and other suburban counties, to draw eight safe Democratic districts, in a less visually abhorrent manner than the current map, and while preserving majority-minority districts.

“They could’ve drawn a cakewalk for all the districts,” as one former Democratic House leadership staffer familiar with the process described it to me.

In the last round of redistricting following the 2010 census, Maryland Democrats went from a 6–2 Democratic map to a 7–1 map. The move wasn’t subtle, but it came at a cost. To secure the seven seats while protecting incumbents’ interests, Democrats stuffed as many Republicans as they could into the 1st District, covering the entire Eastern Shore and around the Chesapeake Bay to the Baltimore outskirts. They effectively gifted a 10-year fiefdom to one of the last people they’d want to give one.

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Andy Harris, an anesthesiologist by trade, has represented the deep-red 1st District since 2011. He had been a culture-warrior state senator before that, once calling to defund the University of Maryland if some students went forward with a showing of a pornographic film.

To Democrats (and, often, House GOP leadership), Harris has been nothing but trouble since his time in Congress. He aligned himself with the Freedom Caucus and its chaotic tactics, and blocked D.C. from implementing a marijuana legalization referendum. He stoked Trump’s 2020 claims about election “irregularities” and was one of 21 Republicans earlier this year who voted against awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to police officers who defended them on Jan. 6, objecting to the description of the event as an “insurrection.”

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Former 1st District Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, the moderate Republican whom Harris successfully primaried in 2008, described Harris to me as “not qualified for Congress.” (Gilchrest, keep in mind, is now a registered Democrat.)

By going for an 8–0 Democratic map, then, Maryland Democrats wouldn’t just be helping the national party offset Republicans’ national redistricting advantage. They would also be ridding themselves of Andy Harris, who already had a well-funded Democratic opponent announced in former Maryland delegate and gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur.

So why did they blink?

Much of Maryland’s congressional delegation was on board with drawing an 8–0 map, even if it meant they had to sacrifice certain precincts or constituencies and take on others they didn’t want. And even if it meant enduring charges of hypocrisy, which they didn’t believe were in good faith.

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“Given that [Republicans] were the ones who blocked redistricting reform, and they are now in the process of trying to gerrymander us into oblivion from Texas to Georgia to North Carolina to Michigan to Wisconsin,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, from Montgomery County, told me, “we have not only a political right, but I would argue an ethical duty, to do whatever we can to fight fire with fire, and try to defend democratic values and democratic process in America.”

Perhaps the most important advocate for an 8–0 map was the majority leader of the House himself, Rep. Steny Hoyer, who represents southern Maryland. In November, Hoyer endorsed an editorial from Gilchrest calling for the legislature to “refashion” his old district to “leave Andy Harris out.”

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But two Democratic members within the delegation were uncomfortable pursuing this most aggressive path. They were Baltimore-area members who came from different perspectives, but arrived at the same end.

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Rep. John Sarbanes represents Maryland’s 3rd District, one of the ugliest and most-mocked gerrymanders in the country—memorably, by a federal judge who said it reminded him of a “broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”

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Sarbanes is also the lead sponsor of the For the People Act, or H.R. 1, which includes as a central plank an end to partisan gerrymandering and a national move to independent, nonpartisan redistricting commissions. As a national crusader against gerrymandering, he couldn’t bring himself to go full 8–0, several Democratic sources said. When asked about his concerns over an 8–0 map, Sarbanes’ spokesperson offered a neutral statement from the representative.

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“The Maryland General Assembly has the important task of choosing a new set of maps for Congressional districts in the state,” it read. “In that process, the Legislature should adhere to principles that respect the voters and ensure fair representation in Congress.”

Rep. Kweisi Mfume, in his second stint in Congress after succeeding the late Rep. Elijah Cummings last year, was more public with his doubts. Going to an all-Democratic delegation “in a state where we’ve got one-third of the voters who are in fact Republicans, I don’t know how you sell something like that,” he said in a November radio interview. “I think that’s an overreach. For me that’s a bridge too far.”

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“I mean, if it were the other way around, and Democrats were one-third of the population, and they put forth maps or started moving toward an 8–0 representation, we’d be jumping up and down in arms,” he said. The “fair” thing, he concluded, would be to stick with a 7–1 map.

But aside from the poor optics, Mfume was concerned that absorbing chunks of largely white Republican voters into his district from Harris’ would distract from his representation of majority-minority communities in Baltimore. He was adamant against suggested changes, like stretching his district north to the Pennsylvania border.

The map, he said in the radio interview, had to treat Baltimore with “some sort of unification where communities have a semblance of having things in common.”

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The four draft maps that the Maryland legislature’s redistricting commission released in November only offered one that resembled a straightforward 8–0 map. It would have absorbed some of Harris’ district into other Baltimore-area districts on the north end, and then extended the 1st District across the Chesapeake Bay to include blue-ish parts of Anne Arundel County, including the city of Annapolis.

The commission tabled this map. Instead, it settled on the seven-Democrat map with a more competitive 1st District. This one still extended Harris’ district across the bay to Anne Arundel County—but curiously excised Annapolis, the inclusion of which would have been quite helpful to the Democratic candidate challenging Harris. Several sources cited one factor: The Democratic state senator representing Annapolis, Sarah Elfreth, didn’t want a competitive congressional district like the 1st layered atop hers. (“Sen. Elfreth had no role,” her staff told me when asked about this factor.)

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Ultimately, the deciding figure on the commission was state Senate President Bill Ferguson, (whose office I reached out to several times, but who was not made available for comment in time for publication). I was told he was never comfortable with an 8–0 Democratic map—and there was never enough grassroots pressure to box him in. Going full D would have been a costly expenditure of political capital, the blowback from Gov. Larry Hogan would have been too strong, and Ferguson was personally too much of a good-government advocate to stomach such a move. Had the congressional delegation achieved consensus in favor of an 8–0 map, Democrats might have been able to roll through his opposition. They didn’t, so they couldn’t.

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And Larry Hogan is furious anyway.

Moving a district from a solid Republican one to a more competitive one does still leave Democrats with a more competitive seat to win. None of the national or state-based figures I spoke to who were disappointed with the decision thinks the district is completely unwinnable. In fact, they suspect it will get bluer over the course of the decade, potentially setting Democrats up for an 8–0 delegation down the road. Heather Mizeur, who hopes to face Harris in the general election next fall, expressed optimism in a statement after the legislature approved the map.

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“Throughout the redistricting process, I’ve advocated for a competitive and balanced First District that requires candidates to compete for every vote, and allows voters to render a verdict on their representative’s job performance,” she said. “The Legislature’s map creates a toss-up district that could be won by a Democrat or a Republican in any given election.” Yeah, but it sure would’ve been nice to have Annapolis.

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Gilchrest did tell me that this new map is a “step in the right direction.” But 2022 is going to be a difficult year for Democrats, giving Harris an opening to preserve his seat at least for the next cycle—and the next cycle is the one, naturally, that national Democrats and their strategists are most concerned about. And so it has brought about that existential question Democrats consistently torture themselves with: Why can’t they be as ruthless as Republicans?

Raskin said Democrats can’t just be expected to sit quietly like a “Quaker meeting house” while Republicans are gerrymandering to their advantage everywhere else—including in states that are, effectively, 50-50.

“I don’t see why our Democratic incumbent colleagues in states like North Carolina and Georgia are in a struggle to survive this redistricting,” Raskin said, “but somehow members like Andy Harris get a relative free pass.”

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Raskin, who led House managers’ prosecution during Trump’s second impeachment trial earlier this year, described the GOP agenda as “gerrymandering, voter suppression, and use of the filibuster and right-wing court packing to thwart progress in the country.” At stake, he said, is democracy, and the “post-Trump Democratic Party has to operate from a different mindset than the pre-Trump Democratic Party” to save it.

On top of Democrats’ control of fewer state legislatures, they’re also at another disadvantage: A lot of blue states—for various reasons, developed over years—don’t have partisan legislative control over their redistricting process. “By our estimate, neutral/commission maps in the blue states of CA, CO, NJ, VA and WA (93 seats total) will end up costing Dems 10-15 House seats they could have seized by gerrymandering,” redistricting expert Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report tweeted recently, “making Republicans even stronger favorites for House control.”

“This is the thing that kills a lot of us in the Democratic Party,” a former House Democratic leadership staffer familiar with the Maryland redistricting process told me. “We’re so careful not to be hypocrites, and we’re so worried about the long-term benefits, that we don’t see the forest for the trees. If we were to win more seats, we would have a more likely chance of passing the type of legislation that H.R. 1 is. But they’re so principled, when the other party is not principled whatsoever and only focuses on the game at hand.”

“Republicans win more elections because they’re focused on elections,” the former staffer added. “And Democrats focus on policy, not elections. And you can’t achieve policy without winning elections.”

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