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Redistricting Success Often a Moving Target

While handicappers try to tally Democratic and Republican redistricting wins and losses in midcycle, the reality is that it could be a decade before either party can declare victory. When it comes to redistricting, how and when to define success isn’t always easy.

For now, both parties are focused on maximizing their advantage or minimizing their losses state by state in the effort to keep or retake the House majority next fall. But the stakes are much higher in the decennial process.

“In general, success is ending up with a set of districts, across the country, that securely holds the majority for a decade,” GOP redistricting veteran Tom Hofeller said.

But too often the prospects of short-term gains come into direct competition with a longer-lasting map.

“There is a temptation to stretch the rubber band too thin,” Hofeller said.

Ten years ago in Pennsylvania, Republicans used their map-drawing authority to turn an 11-10 advantage in the Congressional delegation into a 12-7 edge after the 2002 elections. They drew four Democratic incumbents into two districts, forcing Democrats to eat the Keystone State’s two-seat loss because of population decrease. And they would have had a 13-6 edge if they had known Rep. George Gekas (R) was going to run his campaign with his wife out of their minivan. The lack of a modern campaign resulted in him losing his Member-vs.-Member race against incumbent Democratic Rep. Tim Holden.

At the time, it was still easy to declare Republicans the redistricting winners. But over the long term, the definition of winning is much more complicated.

“From a state legislative perspective, ’02 was a success,” said Mark Campbell, a longtime GOP consultant and adviser to Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.). “From a Congressional point of view, it was adequate.”

For the first half of the decade, the Republican map delivered its intended result. But when the political climate shifted, independents turned against Republicans. By the time the 2008 elections were over, the Pennsylvania delegation flipped from a 12-7 Republican advantage to 12 Democrats and seven Republicans.

The GOP did a better job at the legislative level, retaining the state Senate majority and only narrowly losing the state House over two Democratic wave elections.

When the political climate shifted once again last year, Republicans stormed back to a 12-7 edge in the delegation. They also took back the state House and extended the GOP majority in the state Senate.

In spite of Pennsylvania’s swings, at least one Democrat gives Republicans good marks for their nationwide effort.

“Republicans did a pretty masterful job 10 years ago,” a Democratic consultant said. If President George W. Bush wasn’t so unpopular, they would have controlled Congress for the decade, the source said.

The consultant, who is no stranger to redistricting, said the GOP struck the right balance, making its own seats more competitive in order to create takeover opportunities. The source said even the best intentions couldn’t have counterbalanced Bush’s tumble and the national wave elections.

“You can’t protect yourself from that,” the consultant said.

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