Redistricting will upend many state delegations — but likely not Arizona’s

Independent process ensures maps represent state’s political character

A hot air balloon floats above Sedona, Ariz., in 2020. Arizona’s approach to redistricting is one more states are starting to adopt, Dick writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A hot air balloon floats above Sedona, Ariz., in 2020. Arizona’s approach to redistricting is one more states are starting to adopt, Dick writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Jason Dick
Posted July 19, 2021 at 10:30am

ANALYSIS — If you’re running for a House seat, you’ve probably resigned yourself to a long, strange wait for the Census Bureau to release detailed information on where, exactly, you will be running, with some primaries less than a year away.

That’s got to be especially stressful in states that are losing seats, like Illinois, or gaining them, like Florida, where one party controls the redistricting process and is virtually assured to draw congressional boundaries to maximize its own advantage for the 2022 elections. Usually, we would know a lot more about House race dynamics by now. Add the regularly scheduled political program to the list of things upended by COVID-19.

Perhaps it is cold comfort then that, amid the uncertainty, there are several states attempting to draw the lines fairly through the use of an independent or bipartisan commission. 

Some, like Colorado and Michigan, are doing it for the first time this cycle. Others, like Washington and Arizona, have been at it awhile. No system is perfect, but previous commissions have a habit of approximating their states’ political persuasions. 

Take Arizona. The Grand Canyon State has long been associated with Republican icons such as the late Sens. John McCain and Barry Goldwater. But there has been a shift underway for decades, and the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission has pretty much kept pace. 

In 2000, Arizona voters approved Proposition 106, setting up a commission made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and one independent chair to draw state legislative and congressional lines. The results in subsequent reapportionments largely track Arizona’s political patterns. 

In 2000, Republican George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore in the state’s presidential contest, 51 percent to 45 percent. Republican Sen. Jon Kyl coasted to reelection, with no Democratic opponent, maintaining the GOP’s hold on the state’s two Senate seats, along with McCain. The House delegation stayed at five Republicans and one Democrat, who represented a crammed, majority-Hispanic district in the Phoenix area.

The state then gained two seats in reapportionment, and the new independent commission got to work. 

In 2002, the result was a 6-2 split in the House delegation. The new lines included a second majority-Hispanic district, this one in the Tucson area, which went Democratic. It also created a vast swing district covering northern and eastern Arizona that Republican Rick Renzi narrowly won.

Fast forward to 2012. A new commission got to work with the state gaining a seat in reapportionment. 

After the 2010 elections, a wave year for Republicans, the House delegation stood at five Republicans and three Democrats, along with McCain and Kyl still carrying the GOP banner in the Senate.

In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama in the state’s presidential contest, 53 percent to 44 percent. Republican Rep. Jeff Flake beat Democrat Richard Carmona, 49 percent to 46 percent, for the Senate seat opened up by Kyl’s retirement. And Democrats flipped the GOP advantage in the House delegation by winning five seats to Republicans’ four. 

Republicans had complained that the commission’s map gave Democrats an unfair advantage. But here’s some context: Democrats rode wave elections in 2006 and 2008 to win swing districts that produced a 5-3 advantage for them after those elections. Then they lost two of those seats in the 2010 GOP wave. Republicans were sore about the 2012 House results, but not after 2014, when they flipped the margin again in another wave election, coming away with a 5-4 GOP advantage.  

Notice a trend? No blowouts at the presidential level. Close margins at the House delegation level that favors a party that is riding a wave. Closer statewide Senate races. 

Voter registration over the years has produced a triumvirate of parity, with Republicans, Democrats and independents all hovering in the 30 percent range. The advantage mostly favors the GOP, but with independents gaining the most ground. 

And the political trends show a state getting swingier. 

In 2016, Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, 48 percent to 45 percent. McCain won reelection over Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, but his 54 percent of the vote was the lowest share of his Senate career. The House delegation held at five Republicans, four Democrats.

In 2018, Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema beat Republican Rep. Martha McSally, 50 percent to 48 percent for the seat vacated by the retiring Flake. For the first time since Dennis DeConcini retired after 1994, Arizona had a split Senate delegation. Kirkpatrick also flipped McSally’s House seat to give the Democrats five House seats to the Republicans’ four. 

Then in 2020, Democrats pulled off victories at the state level that left people stunned, although not, perhaps, if one had been following the thread.

Democrat Joe Biden beat Trump, 49.2 percent to 48.9 percent — so close I had to resort to decimal points. Democrat Mark Kelly won a special election for the seat of the deceased McCain, filled first by Kyl and then McSally, defeating McSally, 51 percent to 49 percent. Democrats held onto their 5-4 House seat advantage.  

So, what to expect as another Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission awaits the deep-dive data the commissioners will need to draw new lines — although without adding another seat, as the delegation will remain status quo?

I’d guess more of the same. Over the last two decades, the delegation has largely hewed to what’s going on in the state politically, give or take a wave election or two. If the 2022 elections produce more than a one-seat advantage for either party under the new lines, that would be out of character. 

Voters take heed: Here’s a state whose congressional delegation for the most part reflects its political character. And other states are following suit. 

States don’t have to torture their reapportionment lines to produce results the parties, as opposed to voters, desire.  

Jason Dick edits CQ Roll Call’s congressional leadership coverage.