These senators owe their careers to redistricting

Ripple effects extend beyond House races when districts change

Then-Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., right, in the House chamber before President Donald Trump's 2018 State of the Union address. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Then-Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., right, in the House chamber before President Donald Trump's 2018 State of the Union address. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 11, 2021 at 3:14pm

While redistricting can be a curse for some politicians by forcing them into uncomfortable and even unwinnable situations, new congressional lines can be launching pads for other candidates, with repercussions beyond the House. 

At least six U.S. senators can credit their initial arrival on Capitol Hill to redistricting. Each of them appeared to be destined for Congress at some point, but new lines propelled them into the House and put them in position to later advance to the Senate. 

That means while there are initial macro implications for redistricting on the fight for the House majority and micro impacts on the fate of individual members, there are ripple effects beyond the 2022 elections that could play out over the next decade or more.

Chris Van Hollen

After the 2000 census, Maryland Democrats targeted longtime GOP Rep. Connie Morella for defeat through the redistricting process. Vice President Al Gore carried Maryland’s 8th District 60-36 percent over George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, but that wasn’t enough to defeat Morella, who was considered one of the most liberal Republicans in the House. So Democrats redrew the 8th District to the point that Gore would have won 66-31 percent, according to CQ’s Politics in America, making it arguably unwinnable for any Republican.

Those favorable lines attracted a crowd of Democrats including state Sen. Chris Van Hollen. At the outset, Van Hollen was not the favorite. That mantle fell to state Delegate Mark Shriver, a member of the famous Kennedy family. But Van Hollen prevailed in the competitive primary and defeated Morella 52-48 percent in the general election. 

The congressman was routinely reelected with an average of 75 percent. In 2006, Van Hollen decided not to run for the open Senate seat left by retiring Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes and in 2008 was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, when the party expanded its majority. 

In 2016, when Maryland’s other Senate seat opened up with Democrat Barbara Mikulski retiring, Van Hollen was well-positioned to make the jump. He bested Rep. Donna Edwards 52 percent to 39 percent in the Democratic primary and cruised to general election victory. Van Hollen is up for reelection in 2022 in a race that is initially rated as Solid Democratic.

Tammy Duckworth

In 2006, Tammy Duckworth was the highest-profile Democratic House candidate in the country. She launched her campaign on ABC’s "This Week" with George Stephanopolous. She had the attention and support of then-Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who also happened to be chairman of the DCCC. Democrats gained 31 seats that cycle, but Duckworth was not among the winners. She lost the open seat race in Illinois’ 6th District to Republican Peter Roskam by nearly 3 points. 

It shouldn’t have been a total shock, considering the 6th District voted for President George W. Bush 53-46 percent over John Kerry in the preceding 2004 election and the seat was previously held by conservative Rep. Henry Hyde. But the outcome was still remarkable in the face of the historic Democratic cycle. Duckworth went on to serve as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and then as assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs in President Barack Obama’s administration.

When Democrats redrew the lines again after the 2010 census and before the 2012 election, there was a newly drawn seat in suburban Chicago that happened to reach north to include Duckworth’s home. The new 8th District was significantly more Democratic than the seat she lost previously. Obama carried it 62 percent to 37 percent over John McCain in 2008, which would have been the most recent presidential election when the lines were drawn. 

In 2012, Duckworth won a competitive Democratic primary against now-Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi and cruised to a 9-point general election victory over polarizing GOP Rep. Joe Walsh. Obama won reelection at the top of the ticket and carried the new seat by 16 points.

As a sitting congresswoman and wounded combat veteran, Duckworth was the early Democratic favorite against GOP Sen. Mark Kirk in 2016, and she knocked off the incumbent by 15 points in the general election. 

Kyrsten Sinema

As an ambitious state senator, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema had her eye on Congress, but it looked like her only option was challenging longtime Rep. Ed Pastor in a primary. That was not a desirable path. 

But Arizona gained a seat through reapportionment following the 2010 census and the independent redistricting commission created a Tempe-based 9th District that Obama carried 51 percent to 47 percent in the most recent presidential election at the time.

A majority of the new 9th District was represented by GOP Rep. David Schweikert, but he chose to run in a different, more Republican district where his house was located. So the 9th ended up being an open seat.  

Sinema jumped at the opportunity, won a competitive Democratic primary against state Sen. David Schapira and former state party chairman Andrei Cherny, and won a competitive general election by 4 points against Republican Vernon Parker, the former mayor of Paradise Valley. Sinema had a little help from the top of the ticket, where Obama carried the district by 4 points in his reelection victory. 

Six years later, in 2018, GOP Sen. Jeff Flake decided not to seek reelection and the congresswoman ran for the open seat. With a combination of political skill and a reputation for locking down what was considered a competitive House seat, Sinema didn’t even face serious opposition for the Democratic Senate nomination. And she defeated GOP Rep. Martha McSally in the general election.

Marsha Blackburn and more

Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn also benefited from redistricting, but in a different way. 

Following the 2000 census, the Democratic-controlled legislature shifted state Sen. Blackburn’s home from the 6th District, where she could have challenged Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon, and put it in the 7th District, which was represented by GOP Rep. Ed Bryant at the time. 

When Bryant decided to run for Senate in 2002, Blackburn won a competitive GOP primary against a field that included now-Rep. David Kustoff, and cruised in the general election.

Then in 2018, when GOP Sen. Bob Corker decided not to seek reelection, the congresswoman was well-positioned to win the open seat. So even when the redistricting process is intended to hurt a particular candidate, it can actually help them in the long run.

Back in 1992, a New Jersey commission redrew Democrat Frank Guarini's seat. Guarini didn't seek reelection, and the new, Hispanic-majority district helped state Sen. Bob Menendez prevail in the Democratic primary, which was more important and serious than the general election.

And going even further back, Illinois' 20th District was redrawn considerably following the 1980 census, which helped Democrat Dick Durbin defeat 20-year GOP Rep. Paul Findley by 1,400 votes. Democrats removed some Springfield suburbs and other GOP areas, “giving Durbin an advantage before his campaign even began,” according to Politics in America.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.