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Redistricting’s Bottom Line Might Surprise You

Six months ago, before redistricting had even begun, Republicans were optimistic they would gain additional seats, or, as former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie put it, that they would  “gain or protect” 15 to 25 seats.

Not surprisingly, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) disagreed, arguing the process wouldn’t be the “disaster” for his party that some thought it would be (though he never said exactly who had predicted that).

In January, I estimated in this space that redistricting would be close to a wash, with neither party making major gains, but with Republicans solidifying many of their unexpected 2010 gains.

With redistricting completed in only a few states but the writing on the wall in many others, it now appears that Democrats — not the GOP — will make a small, single-digit gain from redistricting when the process finally is complete.

Republicans will indeed protect a substantial number of the marginal seats they won last year, though probably toward the bottom of the 15-25 seat range (or even below it).

Democratic gains in just two states, Illinois and California, will almost completely offset the party’s losses elsewhere. On the GOP side, gains in North Carolina, Texas and Georgia almost offset Republican losses in Illinois and California.

There are two caveats about reading too much into any bottom line on redistricting results. First, actual House “gains” and “losses” in November depend on more than district fundamentals. The candidates matter a great deal, as does the broad political environment.

Second, there is considerable subjectivity in these estimates — there is no official handbook to tell anyone at what point a gain or loss has occurred. Estimates are just that: informed guesses about what outcomes are most likely, making them inherently tentative and subject to second-guessing.

For example, some are estimating Democratic gains in California of four or five seats, and that’s possible. But I have put Democratic gains (and Republican losses) in the state at only three.

Two California Republican incumbents, Reps. David Dreier and Gary Miller, are without good districts or good options, while a third, Elton Gallegly, is in only slightly better shape.

Beyond those three, Reps. Brian Bilbray, Dan Lungren, Jeff Denham and Mary Bono Mack face difficult re-election races. But, according to data supplied by the National Republican Congressional Committee, all are in districts won comfortably by 2010 GOP Senate nominee Carly Fiorina, and all start off no worse than even money for re-election.

At least three California Democratic incumbents are in districts made substantially more Republican and are at various degrees of risk next year: Reps. Jim Costa, Loretta Sanchez and Lois Capps. In addition, at least one new district could be competitive depending on the year, and vulnerable Rep. Dennis Cardoza’s (D) district was made even more competitive.

If my estimate for California is at the low end of the range for Democrats, my estimate for Illinois (a Democratic gain of five seats and a GOP loss of six) is toward the top end of the range.

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