After dedicating years to winning on the state level, Republicans are poised to deepen and lock in their structural advantages in a redistricting bonanza.
The effects are likely to be felt right away. To put it simply: Republicans can almost certainly win the House in 2022 based on redistricting alone.
“The combination of Republicans controlling the line-drawing in more places and the fact that the environment next year will likely be Republican-leaning — put those two things together and it adds up to a Republican House,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. He recently deconstructed the GOP advantage with a multi-part series on redistricting and how it’ll affect every region of the country.
Republicans have advantages across the board, but their biggest leg up may be in the South.
Kondik pointed to Florida, Georgia, Texas and North Carolina as states where Republicans could torque up their aggressiveness and squeeze out handfuls of seats. Estimates of how many seats they could get out of the redraw here vary from six to 16. Republicans only need to win back five seats to win the House in 2022.
“It’s just a question of how far are Republicans likely to go,” Kondik told TPM. “And there could be court action that trims their ambitions.”
But even on that score, Republicans have other things going in their favor.
In Florida, for example, the state Supreme Court forced a partial re-map before the 2016 election that helped Democrats. But the court’s composition has changed. Andrew Gillum’s 2018 loss to Ron DeSantis gave DeSantis the ability to replace three retiring state Supreme Court justices, all of whom were Democratic appointees (judges on that court have a mandatory retirement age). His picks yanked the court to the right, and it might be less inclined now to bat back GOP-crafted unfair maps.
In states like Texas and Georgia that are seeing rapid demographic change in Democrats’ favor, Republicans are highly motivated to lock down their political dominance.
While Republican control may be most damaging to Democrats in those states, it expands far beyond the region. Democrats don’t have many states in their control to counteract the Republican gains. They can perhaps net back a few seats with their own partisan gerrymanders in New York and Illinois, but strongholds like California are controlled by less predictable, more bipartisan commissions.
“If there were no commissions, the playing field would probably be more even between Democrats and Republicans in terms of gerrymandering power,” Kondik said. “If both sides are maximally aggressive, Republicans come out ahead.”
The margins will matter. If Republicans have more modest gains — Kondik pegs that at around 225-230 seats total — Democrats could conceivably claw back the majority in 2024, when Biden is up for reelection and Democratic voters tend to participate more. If Republicans end up anywhere in the neighborhood of 235-240 seats, Kondik said, the chances of Democrats retaking the House become “unrealistic.”
The For the People Act, Democrats’ major voting rights legislation, includes redistricting reforms. It would ban partisan gerrymandering and require that states use independent commissions to draw their maps.
Republicans easily blocked the original legislation with a filibuster, and Democrats have regrouped behind closed doors to rewrite the bill to accommodate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who had issues with the original. But Manchin continues to support the filibuster, which will leave the reworked legislation blocked as well.
Even if Democrats did figure out how to sway Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) on the filibuster, experts told TPM that it’s already months too late to get the independent commissions installed.
If there is any silver lining for Democrats amid a grim landscape, it’s in the unpredictability of a decade. It’s hard to map out what congressional districts will look like in the next 10 years, especially in states already changing fast.
“The big story of the last decade was that Republicans benefited on balance, but Democrats were able to unwind some of those districts through court action in Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania specifically,” Kondik said. “The big story this time is that Republicans are likely to benefit again, but there’s just a question of how much they benefit and how enduring the gerrymanders are in states with positive trends for Democrats, like Georgia and Texas.