How Republicans Stole The Lead In The Race For Congressional Control

Last Minute Surprises Have Changed The Story On Gerrymandering
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis delivers remarks at the 2022 CPAC conference at the Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Not too long ago, Democrats had some reason for cautious optimism about the balance of power in Congress: State-level reforms, combined with demographic changes and other factors, meant that Democrats appeared poised to come out of this redistricting cycle in relatively okay shape. That was far from a preordained outcome — especially given the ferocity with which Republicans have historically approached drawing maps.

A wave of press coverage ensued. A New York Times headline heralded “A Potential Rarity in American Politics: A Fair Congressional Map.” (“Fair” in this case was used to mean “balanced,” even though in 2020, Democratic candidates won nearly 5 million more votes than Republicans nationwide.) 

But now, things aren’t looking so hot. “We’re down to two possible outcomes of 2022 redistricting: a partisan wash or a modest GOP gain, depending on the final ruling on Dems’ NY congressional map,” the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman observed late last month. 

What happened? Key court decisions and Republican hardball in a handful of states changed the tide. Here’s a breakdown: 

New York

Perhaps the biggest reason for the recent shift in Republicans’ favor was a legal loss in New York, where the state’s highest court ruled Democrats’ congressional map unconstitutional and said the map would be redrawn by a court-appointed expert, called a special master, before the 2022 midterms.

Whereas aggressively gerrymandered maps in Republicans’ favor have survived (or circumvented) legal scrutiny in other states, New York’s top court said Democrats illegally sought to tilt districts in their own favor. 

Democrats’ map would have eliminated a Republican-leaning district and redrawn three others into Democratic-leaning ones — a margin that may have been enough to shore up Democrats’ congressional majority. Now, things aren’t so certain: The special master tasked with redrawing the congressional map in compliance with the state constitution, Dr. Jonathan Cervas of Carnegie Mellon University, is now “one of the most powerful people in politics,” as Bloomberg Government put it Monday. 

Florida

In Florida, Republicans know the sting of court intervention: The GOP-dominated legislature lost a redistricting battle just a few years ago

That’s why, this time around, lawmakers appeared set on drawing a map that, while still favoring the GOP, wasn’t nearly as tilted as it could have been. With majorities in both of the state’s legislative chambers, the GOP legislatures passed the proposal and sent it to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — who promptly vetoed the congressional map. 

DeSantis wanted a more Republican map, and specifically one that eliminated a plurality-Black district in northern Florida that was approved by the Florida Supreme Court in the last gerrymandering fight. He’s also spoken openly about passing maps that challenge the legality of Florida’s anti-gerrymandering amendments. Legislature Republicans folded, approving DeSantis’ proposed map in a special session — likely transforming the current 16-11 Republican-Democratic split into a 20-8 split. Tally four more seats for Republicans. 

Ohio

DeSantis scored big for Republicans by pushing to aggressively gerrymander Florida’s congressional delegation. But Ohio Republicans may take the cake this year for the most blatant disregard for anti-gerrymandering language in the state’s constitution.

We’ve written a lot about Ohio, mainly because it’s a prime example of Republicans playing hardball to get the maps they want. The Republican-dominated Ohio Redistricting Commission has repeatedly approved maps that the Ohio Supreme Court subsequently found violate the state’s new anti-gerrymandering laws, but the commission successfully ran out the clock — forcing the state to vote in bad districts. 

The legal back and forth is ongoing on the state legislative level, where the primary date has been delayed, but on the congressional level, Republicans have already won: On May 3, state primary voters participated in primaries in districts that are slanted 10-3 in Republicans’ favor, with two additional toss-up districts. That’s even more tilted than the current delegation, which has four Democrats. Under the state’s new redistricting laws, the map should be roughly proportional with the partisan leanings of the state as a whole — in which Democrats have won a roughly 47% statewide vote share in recent years. The “tossup” districts were also slanted for Republicans, legal challengers asserted, so that even if Republicans did better than normal statewide and won, for example, 56% of the overall vote, “they would win 13 of the state’s 15 seats.” 

Whereas statewide voting trends and the anti-gerrymandering constitutional language might justify up to six or seven Democratic-leaning districts, under the challenged 2022 map, Democrats would be lucky to get four seats.

Alabama

In Alabama, voters objected not to partisan gerrymandering, but racial gerrymandering: Black Alabamians make up 27% of the state’s population, and yet they only make up a majority of voters in one of the state’s congressional districts. 

And they had a strong case: In January, a three-judge district court panel, including two Trump appointees, ruled that challengers of the state’s congressional map were likely to prove that the state’s map violated the Voting Rights Act. The judges agreed with plaintiffs that “any remedial plan will need to include two districts in which Black voters either comprise a voting-age majority or something quite close to it.” 

And then the case landed in the Supreme Court, where, in a “shadow docket” ruling — that is, without full briefings or oral argument — the court’s majority sided with the state, saying it could keep the gerrymandered map for this year’s elections. In an opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote angrily against “late judicial tinkering with election laws” — though Alabama’s primaries are on May 24, nearly four months after he was writing. Nonetheless: Count one fewer likely Democratic-leaning congressional district, part of a wave of bad news that may land Republicans a congressional majority in 2023.

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