March 1, 2005Before the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature redrew that state's 32 congressional districts in 2003, midterm redistricting was unheard-of in modern-day American politics, except under court order. Today, taking a second crack at political boundaries redrawn as a result of the most recent census is a game that a growing number of elected officials are eager to play.
California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to take redistricting out of the hands of his state's legislators and assign the job to a nonpartisan panel of retired judges. Republicans in the Georgia House and Senate, meanwhile, have crafted competing maps, either of which would put at least two Democratic members of the U.S. House -- freshman John Barrow and second-termer Jim Marshall -- in real jeopardy.
Democrats are trying to get in the game as well. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer is said to be encouraging the Democratic governors of Illinois and New Mexico to redraw their states' lines to benefit Democrats in Congress. Democrats also point to Louisiana as a likely target for redistricting that could help their party.
As recently as 2002, redistricting was largely an incumbent-protection racket: You protect my turf; I'll protect yours. The two states that best exemplified this mind-set were Illinois and California; both passed bipartisan plans that focused almost exclusively on shoring up vulnerable incumbents, regardless of party.
So, redistricting has tended to make most incumbents almost invincible. Mid-decade redistricting might make more seats truly competitive. Over the last four cycles, only 20 House incumbents have lost to nonincumbents.
Understandably, few of the California Republicans in the U.S. House are embracing the governor's plan. By one estimate, a judge-drawn map could jeopardize the Republicans' hold on as many as six seats. Reps. David Dreier and Elton Gallegly would be the most vulnerable GOP incumbents. Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Lois Capps, and Jane Harman could also find themselves in newly competitive districts.
If Schwarzenegger's plan succeeds, new lines will be drawn for the 2006 elections. That timing could work in favor of incumbents, because challengers would have to scramble to raise enough money to be competitive by Election Day. (Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier had $2.4 million on hand at the end of December.)
Democratic insiders say Louisiana is the state most likely to redraw its lines. National Democrats would like to see freshman Rep. Charles Melancon's southern Louisiana district beefed up a bit (he won by fewer than 600 votes) and would like to hurt the GOP. The most obvious target would be Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Rodney Alexander.
To be effective as a partisan tool, redistricting requires incumbents to give up enough supportive voters to make a neighboring district less secure for the opposite party. The more selfish a party's incumbents, the less likely their party is to gain ground through redistricting.
Some governors and state legislators are wary of midterm redistricting. Democrats contend that a pair of Republican governors, Rick Perry of Texas and Bill Owens of Colorado, were damaged by their party's push to reopen the redistricting process. Knowing that history, Democratic governors might want to steer clear of such fights. Why would New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a potential 2008 presidential candidate, want to get into a brawl that might not gain Democrats anything? Two years ago, when some Democrats were encouraging Richardson to bring up redistricting in a special legislative session, he declined, saying it would be "very divisive." He noted that "just because the Republicans do it in a wrong fashion doesn't mean I do it to gain revenge -- although it was certainly tempting."
Another Democratic governor, Illinois's Rod Blagojevich, is up for re-election in 2006 and may not want the distraction of redistricting.
Love him or hate him, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay did succeed in pushing the Texas Legislature to reslice the state's congressional pie. But how many pols are willing or able to follow his lead? In the view of one Democratic insider, if Democrats "take it on the chin" in Georgia and don't hit back somewhere else, the Democratic Party is in trouble.
Some observers say that if Democrats injured Republicans in a couple of states, they could put a stop to mid-decade redistricting. But for now, redistricting is turning into a rougher sport than most House members are used to playing.
March 1, 2005