Politics

Why Blue States Can’t Play by Red State Rules

Hakeem Jeffries holds up one hand while speaking.
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, seen at the Capitol in February, has called the new maps racist. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman sums up New York state’s redistricting process this year in one word: “chaotic.”

For the past few weeks, New York’s Democrats—people who represent me—have been getting increasingly anxious as they await finalized congressional maps. These maps were supposed to be settled months ago, but an independent commission couldn’t agree on them. The Democratic state Legislature drew their own maps, but those got challenged in court. Finally, a judge threw all these maps out and had an independent “special master” start over from scratch. And what he came up with has not made Democrats very happy.

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Some Democrats are calling these new maps racist. Others are worrying that the way they’re drawn means Republicans have an even better chance of taking over Congress next year. But Dave Wasserman looks at these maps and sees something different. He sees Democrats struggling to figure out their next move, squirming as they adjust to the political rules of the road.

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On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Wasserman about how New York’s maps—and the maps in a lot of other states, too—became such a mess. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: When my congressman got really upset about the back-and-forth over these congressional maps, he said “they” have drawn congressional maps that are unfair, but don’t the Democrats control just about every lever of power in the state of New York?

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Dave Wasserman: Well, except as it turns out, the Court of Appeals, which is the top court in the state. They were hoping to offset what Republicans were doing in Texas and Ohio and Florida and elsewhere by passing a maximally aggressive map that would have given them 22 out of 26 seats in the state. Now, is that a fair reflection of New York’s politics? No. It’s an inflation of Democrats’ advantage in the state. But Democrats would argue: Even though we’re manipulating the boundaries, we’re offsetting what Republicans are doing elsewhere. And it’s our duty to fight fire with fire.

Can you just tell me how the story of redistricting this year in New York started? This started with a bipartisan group that was tasked with redrawing district lines, and they got stuck. What went on here?

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I never took it seriously, because the redistrict commission was made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, but unlike other states with functional commissions, this one didn’t have any tiebreaking component. Even New Jersey has a 13th commissioner who breaks a tie between the parties.

There was never any prospect for bipartisan agreement, because there was no incentive for either side to come to the table and negotiate. Democrats all along knew that if the commission failed, the Legislature would draw the map.

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It seemed to me that was kind of the plan from the beginning. The Legislature would swoop in and get to draw up maps that kept incumbents safe and waved away a few Republican strongholds.

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There was just one problem: Republicans. They sued. And the state’s constitution was on their side.

The language in the New York Constitution is pretty clear that maps cannot give one party or incumbents an undue advantage. And New York’s top court—these are not simply political lackeys. Many of the judges on the Court of Appeals are very accomplished legal professionals who take these matters very seriously. And in a narrow majority, they affirmed the lower court’s findings and said, “Yes, this pretty plainly violates the state constitution.”

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So the Court of Appeals appointed a “special master” to draw new district lines. What did this guy’s maps look like?

On balance, I’d say it was slightly friendlier to Democrats than what I was expecting, but about three seats less friendly to Democrats than the gerrymandered one the Legislature drew.

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So the Democrats, in their minds, lost three seats in this year when they really feel like the House is on this precipice where they could lose it.

Keep in mind who’s from New York. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the DCCC, and Hakeem Jeffries, who is widely anticipated to be Nancy Pelosi’s successor as leader of the party someday. They were under heavy pressure to deliver as many seats as possible for their Democratic colleagues

So this looks bad for them.

This looks really bad. No doubt.

The judge who had appointed the special master, when he released the finalized maps last week, he characterized them as almost perfectly neutral. Would you characterize them that way as well?

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I’d say they’re pretty close to neutral. In this case, I think the special master made some choices that create highly competitive districts.

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And this map will be fairly responsive to voters’ changing moods over the course of the next decade. You have some districts that are in the high single digits for Biden, you have some districts that are in the low single digits, some that are narrowly for Trump.

But if I’m an incumbent, I don’t really want my district to be responsive to changing moods. 

Of course!

I want the mood to be me all the time.

Well, welcome to what Democrats drew.

Did New York Democrats in some ways do this to themselves? I’m thinking back to their independent redistricting commission, which, as you said, was set up to come to a gridlock. It didn’t have anyone who was a tiebreaker on there. If they’d just put in place that one element, could it have saved them a whole lot of heartbreak here?

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They didn’t want to. They didn’t want to take their chances on a commission that would pass a neutral or Republican-leaning map. This was designed to fail.

Maybe they just flew too close to the sun here.

The only thing I can think of that would have allowed Democrats to keep their map was for Andrew Cuomo or Kathy Hochul to appoint more party-line stooges to the Court of Appeals.

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There are layers to how problematic New York’s congressional maps are if you’re a Democrat. There’s the national problem—losing a couple of seats in this very blue state means the Dems are going to have to fight harder if they want to remain in power in Washington. 

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But then, there’s the way these new maps have turned the party against itself. Longtime incumbents Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney were drawn into the same Manhattan district, and will have to compete against each other, Hunger Games–style.

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So many Black incumbents find themselves in this kind of situation that Rep. Hakeem Jeffries has called these maps racist

You see it a little differently, right?

Look, this is what happens every 10 years. This is happening all over the country. We have seven incumbent versus incumbent situations now, including Maloney versus Nadler. Democrats are obviously upset because going for broke in redistricting was a necessary precondition for them to have any path to holding the House. And that hasn’t happened now that courts have overturned this map.

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But also this has been a pretty poor redistricting cycle for minority voting rights across the country. In Alabama, for example, there was a push for a second African American district, and the U.S. Supreme Court essentially put a kibosh on that. And a similar situation is unfolding in Florida where the only Black district in North Florida, that’s existed for 30 years, may be dismantled by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

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But I would not call what’s happened in New York a minority vote dilution situation, despite what Jeffries is alleging. You will still have two strongly Black districts in Brooklyn under this plan, which is no change from the current plan, even though New York is losing one seat.

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It strikes me that it’s really an incumbent dilution plan. It doesn’t favor the people who’ve already been there.

Yeah, Democrats are pointing to racial reasons as a reason they don’t like the map when the real situation here is incumbents and turf wars between them.

This doesn’t look good for Democrats. 

No.

It looks like a mess and I don’t know how they get away from it.

Well, they’re going to have to live with it for 10 years, at least. And the fact of the matter is this map makes both parties work for seats. That is pretty different from what we see in other states. There are five districts out of 26 on this map that I would say are highly competitive seats. If every state in the country had that same level of competitiveness, then we’d have 84 highly competitive districts in the house. And instead we’re on track for 36.

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New York isn’t an outlier for Democrats. It’s indicative of a broader trend, which shows that blue states can’t play by red state rules. 

At the end of February, Democrats looked like they were doing great, and they started popping the Champagne a little bit too early because in March, things turned. Democrats had gotten some great state court rulings in Pennsylvania and North Carolina overturning Republican gerrymanders. They did well with the commission states like New Jersey and California. They more or less got the maps they wanted in Michigan.

But then in March, state courts overturned their gerrymander in Maryland. And then in Florida, Gov. DeSantis overpowered his own Legislature to impose a map that could give Republicans 71 percent of the seats in that state. That was a shift from our priors. And then obviously what happened in New York.

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So you take the four or five seat gain that Democrats were expecting from redistricting back at the end of February, and now it looks more like a three to four seat gain for Republicans. That’s before even factoring in the political environment, which looks downright catastrophic for Democrats.

I mean, you’ve really pointed to how crucial the courts were in this. Basically because of how the courts have ruled in response to Democratic maps, it’s possible to brazenly gerrymander in some states, like red states, but not others, mostly blue. And I think that’s a really important distinction.

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Right.

Because you look at, for instance, what this judge said about New York’s maps, and he says, “The court isn’t politically biased here,” which may be true. But if the court is not politically biased only in one kind of state, it makes things much more complicated.

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The main takeaway from this cycle is in the absence of the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress stepping up to put up a standard or guardrails against gerrymandering, you’re going to see the value of people’s votes vary wildly from state to state, depending on the process for drawing these lines.

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We’ve got some states that are sending brutally gerrymandered delegations to Congress. Texas, for example, will likely send a 25–13 Republican breakdown, but what’s striking about that map is that only one out of the 38 seats is remotely competitive this cycle. So it’s really quite different from California or New York where you might have five or six competitive races.

For a couple of decades, the rap on Republicans has been that they’re just better at playing the redistricting game. Is that what you see this year?

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I think the parties are playing by two different sets of rules. And Republicans justify their gerrymanders by pointing to the fact that Democrats are more clustered geographically than Republicans. Democrats tend to live in 80 or 90 percent blue precincts, whereas Republicans tend to live in 60 to 70 percent red precincts.

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And what that means is that in most states it’s much easier to draw a clean-looking Republican gerrymander than a clean-looking Democratic gerrymander. Democrats have to break up cities, and they have to draw some very mangled boundaries to be able to spread out their voters and their advantage.

And when you present maps to a court, judges are struggling to identify what’s a gerrymander mathematically—many of them inspect gerrymanders visually and say this just doesn’t pass the smell test. And so Republicans, yes, they’ve gotten their judges in their states to be more on board with aggressive plans. Whereas Democratic judges we’ve seen in Maryland and New York are trying to adhere to the letter of the law. And what that means overall is an imbalanced House map.

I’ve been covering house races for the past 15 years. And when I started, these contests were still battles between two different candidates of differing backgrounds and qualifications, making arguments to voters. Now, what I see more or less is censuses of how many Democrats or Republicans live within a certain preordained set of boundaries. And yes, it does shift depending on whether it’s a red or blue year. But candidates don’t matter as much as they used to, particularly when so many of these election outcomes are written into the destiny because of redistricting.

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