Redistricting Battles Begin: Could Your Congress Member be in the Line of Fire?

Republicans have upper hand in partisan process, target veteran lawmakers.

March 28, 2011, 6:05 PM

March 29, 2011 — -- Several veteran members of the U.S. Congress could soon find their jobs in the line of fire as redistricting efforts get underway around the country.

From New York, which will lose two U.S. House seats, to Ohio, which will lose the same number, Democrats are particularly vulnerable this time around in the once-a-decade process that's rife with partisan bickering.

Meanwhile, population growth in heavily Republican states has given the GOP an upper hand. Texas will gain four House seats, the most of any state. Florida will gain two seats, and Arizona and Georgia one each.

"Republicans are in the best position that they've been in for redistricting in the modern era of redistricting across the country, and especially in these states that are gaining seats, like Texas," said Tim Storey, a redistricting analyst at the National Council of State Legislatures.

In states such as New York that are mostly Democratic controlled but losing seats, the party faces the stark reality of pitting its members against each other when redrawing Congressional boundaries, as in the case of Rep. Louise Slaughter, who represents a district in upstate New York.

Then there's talk of Republicans targeting specific Democrats, such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich in Ohio and Rep. Frank Pallone in New Jersey, whose districts have too few people and need to be enlarged.

Republicans took over at least 19 Democratic-controlled state legislatures in November and gained more than 650 seats, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, meaning they control much of the redistricting processes around the country.

In most states, redistricting maps have to be approved by the state House, Senate and the governor. New boundaries have to take into account population changes, demographic shifts and minority representation.

Partisan "gerrymandering" isn't always a matter of one party increasing outright the number of districts that they know will favor them. It mainly occurs by redrawing the district so that it displaces rival party members and puts them in a whole new district with less favorable demographics.

Democratic political insiders say it's too early to speculate what the end result might be. Others foresee a brutal fight.

"It's a bloodsport. There's no doubt about it," Storey said. "It's extraordinarily political no matter who draws the line. The outcome is going to have a political impact, and sometimes unintentionally will favor individual candidates or parties.

"It's one of the most political exercises that any government undertakes, whether it's a state government, or another country, and it's required by the Constitution."

Despite their edge, Republicans are not out of the woods. Where they have the majority, conservatives are struggling with how to draw district lines without putting their own representatives in competition with each other.

"Republicans were almost too successful in 2010," said Michael P. McDonald, a redistricting expert at the Brookings Institution who is involved in redistricting efforts in states such as Virginia.

GOP Has Its Own Challenges

Louisiana, for example, is a state where the Republican Party is being forced to drop one of its own because the state loses one seat. The same could happen in Ohio, a battleground state that will lose two House seats.

"You're going to see this interesting pattern emerge in other large states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Texas where the interests of the incumbents are going to start clashing with the party because the party can't spread around enough Republicans to protect their incumbents," McDonald said.

"Republicans will be more protecting what they have as much as they possibly can, rather than trying to expand their majorities in Congress through redistricting in some of these states," he added.

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is another notable congressman who could soon face this challenge. A new district will have to be formed from parts of the area he represents, which could make the next election more competitive for the veteran congressman.

Democrats who are most vulnerable are those in whose states Republicans control the state legislature, such as in Texas, and those who represent districts in the center of their states where they've seen significant population changes.

"If you currently represent a voting rights district or you're in a district that's on the corner of the state, you're probably OK," McDonald said. "If you're in the middle of the state, and you don't represent a minority district, you're very vulnerable because even if your states win or lose congressional districts, there could be internal changes within the population of the state that are going to ripple across the state."

Observers are closely eyeing California, where a ballot initiative in 2008 created the 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission that would be responsible for drawing up state legislative district lines, instead of the legislature itself.

In Florida, voters passed a constitutional amendment that keeps the power to draw district lines in the hands of the legislature but sets a specific criteria that says boundaries that are drawn cannot favor any political candidate or party.

Arizona also has an independent five-member redistricting commission but that hasn't been without its controversy either.

Experts say partisan wrangling will likely be worse this year compared to the past, given the political climate and what's at stake for the parties for the next decade.

"What you're going to see is a game of musical chairs," said Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociology professor at Queens College in New York. "I think it will be a big fight and it will be both state and national."

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