A New York Times headline from November of last year—early in the decennial House redistricting process—reinforced what many perpetually sad-on-their-luck Democrats had come to expect: “Republicans Gain Heavy House Edge in 2022 as Gerrymandered Maps Emerge.”
Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth!
Republicans, with their dominant control of state legislatures across the country, had worked quickly to cement their incumbents and freeze out Democratic expansion in many states. A certain pessimistic conventional wisdom informed by the previous redistricting cycle took hold: Ruthless Republicans would staunch out the possibility of a majority for do-gooder Democrats for much of the next decade.
But for those leading Democratic redistricting efforts from central command in D.C., the Times piece was premature.
They had a plan for this.
In the months since, the popular narrative that Republicans would smother Democrats for a decade has fizzled out. Democrats, through a series of aggressive gerrymanders of their own (and victories in court), are on the cusp of completing a national gerrymandering process that doesn’t exactly tilt in their favor, but is much more competitive for them than the current maps.
While 11 states still haven’t completed their maps—and there are some puzzle pieces remaining—national Democrats believe they’ve achieved their goal of avoiding the redistricting nightmare of 10 years ago.
“With 39 congressional maps encompassing 337 congressional districts complete as of this week,” former Attorney General Eric Holder, the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, told reporters Thursday, “it’s becoming quite clear that there will be enough fair and competitive districts around the country for the House to be in play, not only for this cycle but for the rest of the decade.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, made a similar declaration earlier this week.
What changed in the last few months to turn Democrats’ frown upside down?
Republicans made some early moves in states over which they have total control. In Iowa, a state where just one Congress ago Democrats controlled three out of the four seats, Republicans tilted those three seats a titch to the right. Utah Republicans cracked a competitive Salt Lake City district into four districts, securing four very safe Republican seats. Montana Republicans gifted themselves the state’s new, second seat; Republicans in Nebraska, Arkansas, and Oklahoma shored up lone, quasi-competitive districts.
In Texas, a state which saw a massive influx of Democratic voters over the last decade, Republicans gerrymandered creatively to protect their incumbents and maintain a roughly 2-1 advantage in a state where Donald Trump got only 52 percent of the vote in 2020. In Georgia, a state Trump lost and which presently has two Democratic senators, Republicans took out one Democratic incumbent’s district and produced a 9-5 advantage for themselves. Both Georgia’s and Texas’ maps are in court.
Since Democrats had total control over redistricting in far fewer states than Republicans did, there was pressure from the national Democratic party on those few states to push their gains. And so they went about it.
In Illinois, Democrats gerrymandered their way from the state’s 13-5 Democratic delegation to a 14-3 Democratic advantage. New Mexico converted its lone Republican-leaning district to a Democratic-leaning one. Maryland Democrats flinched from wiping out the state’s sole Republican district, but did make it more competitive. The show-stopper in Democrats’ plans, though, was in New York.
For the first redistricting cycle in a long time, Democrats had unified control of and supermajorities in Albany. Following a perfunctory effort to create a map through a bipartisan commission, the legislature took over, and created a map where Democrats have the advantage in 22 districts’ to Republicans’ 4. The current delegation is 19 Democrats to 8 Republicans. New York’s new map, alone, flipped the Cook Political Report’s overall redistricting scorecard in Democrats’ favor for the first time.
Democrats, including those in Holder’s group, also prepared litigation strategies in states where they suspected Republicans might not be able to help themselves from overreaching.
Consider Ohio, a state whose voters in the last decade approved a constitutional amendment forbidding partisan gerrymandering. Republicans in charge of the state essentially ignored this, and approved a map giving Republicans a 13-2 advantage—in a state that Trump won with only 53 percent of the vote.
National Democrats felt that if Republicans had been a touch less aggressive—say, by adopting an 11-to-4 map—it could have passed muster with the state Supreme Court. The one Ohio passed, instead, was struck down by the state Supreme Court, and now Democrats feel there’s a chance Ohio could produce a 10-to-5 map when all is said and done. It’s a similar story in North Carolina, where congressional maps are rarely not in litigation. Trump won the state with 50.1 percent of the vote in 2020, and Republicans produced a map with 10 Republican districts, 3 Democratic districts, and 1 swing district. The state Supreme Court struck that down last week, and Democrats could find themselves with a couple of more seats at the end of the process.
The process is not over, and Republicans, after seeing the aggression with which Democrats are pushing the cycle, have gotten a second wind. Tennessee recently blew one of its two Democratic districts to smithereens. Kansas Republicans this week overrode Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto on a map that endangers the state’s sole Democrat (the NDRC is planning a suit, Holder told reporters Thursday.) Hard-right Missouri Republicans are having a weeklong fit trying to block a map that keeps a Democratic Kansas City district intact.
But the most important state to watch right now is Florida. The state senate had, on a near-unanimous vote, approved a map maintaining roughly the status quo split between Democrats and Republicans. That wasn’t good enough for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who proposed his own, aggressive map that, if passed, would be a direct affront to both state and federal law. He may not be able to go as far as he wants, but look for Republicans in Florida to try to make up at least some of the ground they’ve lost elsewhere.
The gains they have made, though, have often been characterized as “surprising” in pieces observing the trend this year. That’s in large part due a psychological affliction among Democrats, who view their party as innately incapable of competing with Republicans in power politics, and who’ve never seen a rabbit hole of despair they haven’t gone down.
The 2010 maps were so gerrymandered in Republicans’ favor that many Democrats simply assumed that would happen again. But sometimes rock bottom really is rock bottom, and Democrats had more opportunities this cycle than they had a decade ago.
The outcome has not been surprising to the national Democratic strategists working on redistricting with whom I spoke, some of whom said what we’re seeing more or less matches their projections heading into this cycle. Democrats had a plan, and built the infrastructure, to maximize their gains in states where they had unified control, litigate where Republicans overreached, pass ballot initiatives against gerrymandering, and raise more public awareness of redistricting before the cycle began.
“I think what folks have been characterizing as a ‘surprise,’ ” Kelly Burton, the president of the NDRC, told reporters Thursday, “is really the implementation and the result of an intentional strategy.”