A Redistricting Gamble Democrats Will Regret

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Amid all the ominous political news this season, Democrats kept their eyes fixed on a ray of hope: States were redrawing the lines that define Congressional districts, and Democrats were doing well in the process. “How Democrats Are Winning Congressional Redistricting Struggles” was a CNN.com headline last month. “Republicans built on their existing gerrymanders to try to expand their advantage in the House, but Democrats fought back even more powerfully with gerrymanders of their own,” reports Vox.

But gerrymandering won’t save the Democrats. Not this year, and probably not this decade. It might not even do much to help them.

In part, this is because newlines are not definitive. In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis convinced the state Senate to review the borders in a special legislative session. If his new map prevails, the state will have four more Republican-leaning House seats than it has now.

But there are also tradeoffs in redistricting that pose an especially serious problem for contemporary Democrats. Its voters have become more geographically concentrated over time; they lost rural voters and gained city dwellers. To maximize the number of House seats they can contest, they need to divide voters in their urban strongholds across districts. As the 2020 election left them with complete control over redistricting in relatively few places, they need to use this tactic very aggressively where they can.

Nevada is an example of this. Three of the state’s four House districts are Republican. The Democrats, who control the government and both houses of the legislature, have pulled Democratic voters out of the centralized Las Vegas district and split them between two other seats. The result was a new map with three boroughs that voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

The danger for Democrats is that all three redesigned districts narrowly voted for Biden. Representative Dina Titus, the Democrat who occupies the Las Vegas seat, would have been a padlock for re-election under the old lines. Now, a Republican wave, even a medium-sized one, could sweep Democrats from every seat in the state. That’s a real prospect in a state with many working-class Hispanic voters, a group that has been catching up with Republicans lately.

Keep in mind, too, that this wave would be measured against the parties’ display in the 2020 presidential race. On average, Biden was ahead of Democratic candidates for Congress that year, winning over some voters who often support Republicans but don’t. Trump. Democrats cannot count on these voters in 2022.

Republicans generally followed a different redistricting strategy. With more district lines under their control, Republicans could afford to give greater priority to protecting seats where they already had the upper hand. They weren’t as aggressive in maximizing the number of seats they could vie for. That’s why news coverage highlighted the Democrats’ surprising gains from redistricting.

But Republicans have reaped both short-term and long-term benefits from their approach. This year, they can focus their efforts on fewer winnable seats. And in future elections this decade, when there may be a wave of Democrats, more Republican seats will be safe.

On April 20, election observers at the Cook Political Report revised their rankings of eight House races. Each review favored the Republicans. The two Nevada seats that gained the most Democratic voters through redistricting were judged to be Democrat-skewed. Now they are “releases”. Titus’ chair, which wasn’t even considered competitive in 2020, is now classified as a “Lean Democrat”.

In a 1986 Supreme Court ruling on district lines, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted that “an overly ambitious gerrymander can lead to disaster for the legislative majority: because it creates more seats in which it expects to win relatively narrow victories, the same balance in overall voting strength will tend to cost the legislative majority more and more seats as the gerrymander becomes more ambitious.” Thirty-six years later, Democrats can learn this lesson the hard way.

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• Ford needs to position itself in Tennessee: Andre Perry and Tonantzin Carmona

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He is editor of National Review, contributor to CNN, and fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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