How Republicans Tipped The House Scales Long Before Votes Were Cast

Getty Images/TPM Illustration.

The House majority, however you slice the outstanding races, is coming down to the wire. 

As a red wave failed to materialize and Democrats won the Senate, the lower chamber has seemed increasingly in play. Even now, when many give Republicans the edge to flip the House, Democrats are very much in the ball game. 

The majority will likely come down to a handful of seats. That brings the role of gerrymandering, a super powerful force that’s often relegated to the background of election analysis, to the fore. 

If Republicans win the House by a slim margin, you can pinpoint some of the states where their redistricting abuse — often assisted by right-wing judges — made it happen. 

Divine Intervention: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana 

In this southern trio, the Supreme Court had a direct hand in resuscitating maps that lower courts found to be racially gerrymandered.   

Alabama was the opening salvo. There, a panel of judges — the majority of whom were Trump appointees — ordered the legislature to draw a new congressional map, finding that the one it passed artificially weakened the Black vote by packing all of those voters into one district. That would have meant an additional minority-majority district: likely another Democratic seat. 

The Supreme Court majority stepped in and blocked that order in February without explanation.

A federal judge in Louisiana smacked down the congressional maps there, citing the state’s history of disenfranchising Black voters as the Republican legislature again tried to diminish Black voting power by cramming all of those voters into one district. 

The Supreme Court struck again, silently letting the challenged maps stand without the creation of another district to combat the minimizing of the Black vote. That’s another likely Democratic seat lost.

And in Georgia, SCOTUS’ reputation preceded it.  

There, a federal judge said that the legislature’s map was likely a racial gerrymander in violation of the Voting Rights Act — but let it stand anyway, citing Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s explanation in the Alabama case that an election still many months away was too close to rewrite the maps. 

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) was vindicated: He’d waited 40 days after the legislature passed the map to sign it into law, running down the clock on the inevitable legal challenges. That’s another seat or two down the drain for Democrats.   

Maximal Aggression: Florida 

Even in states where the Supreme Court didn’t have a direct hand, its past actions contoured the landscape. 

In Florida, Republicans took advantage of the Court’s devastation of the VRA and its own uber-right wing state Supreme Court to press for a maximally aggressive gerrymander. 

The map that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) pushed was so extreme that even the state’s Republican legislature balked, blown back by his proposed elimination of a district specifically drawn to empower Black voters. But DeSantis ultimately won the standoff and the legislature approved his maps, which gave Republicans an additional four seats (and dismantled the predominantly Black 5th district seat). 

The Florida Supreme Court declined to get involved in the case, letting a DeSantis map-friendly lower court decision stand, despite the fact that voters had amended the state constitution in 2010 to bar racial and partisan gerrymanders. DeSantis had appointed three of the four justices behind the majority opinion.

Under the new map, Republicans won 20 of 28 House seats, up from the 16 of 27 seats they won in 2020 before another seat was added after the census. That’s a 20 to eight seat advantage for Republicans.

Screw the People: Ohio 

In the Buckeye State, Republicans showed how little a price they’d pay for ignoring both their own courts and the will of the people in favor of netting as many seats as possible. 

Voters there had overwhelmingly approved constitutional amendments to curb partisan gerrymandering in the state, creating a redistricting committee and shortening the lifespan of any map passed on partisan lines. 

But Republicans found, to their joy, that they could largely ignore those mandates and get away with it. The state’s legislative and congressional elections were held under maps the Ohio Supreme Court had found to be unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. 

Ohio Republicans used a combination of slow-walking, refusing to meaningfully change the maps and confidence that their gerrymanders would continue to imbue them with enough power to keep circumventing the state’s recent redistricting reforms. They ensured that a slightly red state kept voting like a deeply red one. Democrats only have two solidly blue-leaning seats to Republicans’ 11 under the current map.

Fighting Fire With Nothing: New York 

While Republicans used the courts and their lopsided state power (often locked in by earlier rounds of gerrymandering) to manipulate the maps to their favor, Democrats cast about for states where they could do the same. 

They’d already lost some opportunities to do so, as some left-wing bastions — Colorado, California — had voted for independent redistricting commissions whose work was actually respected and accepted. 

That left New York as the big prize, where Democrats could beat Republicans at their own game. Democrats have supermajorities in Albany, and used them to draw their own maximal gerrymander. 

But ultimately, New York’s highest court struck them down in a 4-3 decision, the four being a bloc of appointees from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who routinely appointed conservative judges. Instead of giving the legislature an opportunity to draw new maps like a lower court judge did, they gave the task to a special master. 

What emerged was a very competitive map — to the chagrin of Democrats who otherwise would have likely gained three seats that Republicans would have lost. 

As Dave Wasserman, senior editor of U.S. House coverage at the Cook Political Report, points out, there were other factors at play: Democrats lost some very blue seats in New York, and even gerrymandering can’t always overcome other race components. 

But it remains the reality that New York was one of Democrats’ few opportunities to build up a buffer and combat Republican-gerrymandered pickups elsewhere — and that certainly did not come to pass. 

If Republicans do win back the House by a handful of seats, it’ll be thanks to maps crafted months ago, in courtrooms and hearing rooms, before any voter cast a ballot.

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