Running for re-election is hard every election cycle, but in the year following the census it gets a little more complicated.
The lines for Congressional districts in every state — except those with one at-large Representative — will be redrawn in the next few months. Redistricting will be particularly important in the 18 states where 12 seats will shift.
Lawmakers must return home for recess with the new maps in mind. District event planning becomes critical, since voters in the next town over might be their constituents the next time Members appear on the ballot.
“I’ll get invitations to do events across my region in south Florida and accept a lot of them because we really do take a regional approach to representation in our area, but also because down the road I may be asked to represent a certain area,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) told Roll Call.
Because Wasserman Schultz’s district may get significantly redrawn, she keeps an open mind when scheduling events. The Sunshine State will gain two seats through reapportionment, and because Floridians voted for more stringent redistricting guidelines in November, the resulting map may look more different than it otherwise would have.
Wasserman Schultz has an advantage since she went through redistricting as a member of the Florida Legislature; Members who were elected to their first legislative office since the last round of redistricting are figuring out the process for the first time.
Freshman Rep. Blake Farenthold (R), for example, is in a southeastern Texas district that may get significantly redrawn when the Lone Star State gains four seats following reapportionment. He said he considers the three Republican state legislators who represent his hometown of Corpus Christi friends, and he has attended meetings on redistricting in Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Though the two ends of his district have a lot in common, they also compete in many ways as tourist destinations and port cities, a compelling reason to give them separate Representation, Farenthold said.
“I’ve seen dozen of maps with the districts remaining the same and maps with it dividing into two separate districts,” he said. “I’m good whatever they do.”
Farenthold’s conundrum is no different from what more experienced legislators face in other states. Rep. Bruce Braley (D), who was first elected in eastern Iowa in 2006, has also looked at where the population has shifted in his home state.
“We’ll have to see what the new map looks like, but realistically my district is probably going to move north to the Minnesota border,” he told Roll Call earlier this month. “It’s probably going to move west, and it’s likely to move south in some ways.”
Eight-term Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat who represents part of Cleveland, summed up incumbents’ concerns in an e-mail to supporters. “The question will not be: Who is my opponent? The question will be: Where is my district?”
At this point in the cycle, the top to-do item for incumbents is to learn as much as they can about the redistricting process in their states and identify the important players.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.) oversees redistricting for the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Wasserman Schultz is the point woman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They told Roll Call that they view their roles as serving as resources for Members.
Both Westmoreland and Wasserman Schultz said they’re setting up meetings with members of each state delegation to talk about what to expect in their states.
“For now a lot of the Members are really just concerned about the statistics,” Wasserman Schultz said. They’ll try to help Members sort out which districts need to lose and gain population, even before precinct numbers are released.
Westmoreland said he encourages Members to introduce themselves to state legislators, especially those who were elected for the first time in November and may get involved in the redistricting process.
Though neither Wasserman Schultz nor Westmoreland was in Congress following the 2000 census, Westmoreland went through a round of mid-decade redistricting after Georgia’s map was challenged in court. The Republican said that although the Legislature draws the map, the local lawmakers are often open to recommendations from Members of Congress.
“When they redrew the court maps, I was in Congress, and we did offer the Legislature suggestions. And believe it or not, they followed most of them,” he recalled.
The approach is different for challengers, many of whom are waiting until the lines are drawn to declare their candidacies. In Indiana, Nate LaMar (R), the president of the Henry County Council, is considering running for the seat Rep. Mike Pence (R) would leave behind if he runs for a higher office. LaMar said he’ll wait to announce his intentions until Pence makes his decision and the lines for the new district are drawn.
LaMar has been following the redistricting process in Indiana, which will keep its nine seats. He’s mindful that his home county has been the geographic center of a Congressional district through multiple rounds of redistricting, but he also knows the 6th district needs to gain population. Accordingly, even though he hasn’t started fundraising, he’s doing outreach in adjacent counties that aren’t in the current district.
“I made contacts in Hancock County, just in case, and will continue to do so, as well as the neighboring counties,” he said.
Though the first maps will make their way through state legislatures and independent commissions in the spring, some will have further to go because of efforts to make sure minorities get fair representation. In states covered by the Voting Rights Act, maps must either be approved by the Department of Justice or go straight to court. As Westmoreland noted, this is the first time since the act was signed into law that a Democratic Justice Department will sign off on new maps in those states. That may lead some states to skip directly to legal action, a process Westmoreland and Wasserman Schultz will do their best to prepare Members for.
Ultimately, though, all incumbents can do now is represent the people who elected them.
“You were elected by the people in your current district, and you have an obligation to give them 100 percent of your attention for the term you were elected,” Farenthold said. “I’m operating like I’m going to run in the exact same district.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.