Redistricting lessons from Indiana’s (likely) new map

Political parties could focus on solidifying their current advantage, rather than expanding it

Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski represents a district that would likely be out of reach for Democrats under a new draft congressional map.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski represents a district that would likely be out of reach for Democrats under a new draft congressional map. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 22, 2021 at 10:00am

ANALYSIS — Just because a party can gerrymander the living daylights out of a state doesn’t mean it will. And the likely new congressional map in Indiana is a good example.

Republicans have full control of the redistricting process in the Hoosier State since they control the state legislature and the governor’s office. They have a 7-2 advantage in the congressional delegation.

Hypothetically, the GOP could move that to 8-1, if they divide up Democratic Rep. Frank J. Mrvan’s 1st District in northwest Indiana and add GOP voters to it from the solidly red surrounding districts.

Instead, Republicans released a draft map that will likely solidify their 7-2 advantage and leave Mrvan’s seat virtually untouched. President Joe Biden carried the current version of the 1st District by 9 points, 54 percent to 45 percent, in 2020, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Under the draft map, he would have won the district by 8 points, 53 percent to 45 percent, according to calculations by Nick Roberts, a student at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Leaving the 1st largely intact keeps GOP voters in Republican Jackie Walorski’s neighboring 2nd District. And that likely puts her seat out of reach for Democrats under almost any conditions.

The 2nd District, anchored by South Bend, has often been a takeover target when an election cycle breaks against Republicans. But Donald Trump carried the seat by 20 points in 2020 and would have won it by 22 points under the draft map.

It’s a similar scenario farther south, near Indianapolis, where Republican cartographers are on the verge of putting the 5th District out of reach.

Republican Victoria Spartz won the open seat by 4 points in 2020, in what was regarded as one of the most competitive races in the country. Trump carried district by just 2 points over Biden.

But the new map would make the 5th considerably more Republican, since heavily Democratic portions of Marion County are drawn into the Indianapolis-based 7th District, represented by Democrat André Carson.

Trump would have carried the newly drawn 5th by 16 points, according to Roberts. In 2018, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly narrowly won the current 5th District while losing reelection to Republican Mike Braun. Under the new draft lines, Braun would have carried the seat by 10 points.

So while Republicans likely won’t gain any seats in Indiana in their quest for the House majority, they’ll likely solidify their lock on the delegation by taking two potentially vulnerable seats and removing them from the list of competitive races.

“We’re approaching perfection as far as the Republicans are concerned,” Indiana University political scientist Marjorie Hershey told The Associated Press about the draft Indiana map. “I think they just made sure that they further entrenched where they felt maybe they needed it.”

Eye on longevity

It’s similar to what Republicans did in Ohio a decade ago. By packing Democrats into Cleveland- and Columbus-area districts, the GOP made the surrounding seats more difficult for Democrats to win.

That Ohio map should be considered the gold standard for partisan redistricting because of its endurance. No House seat changed partisan hands in Ohio in 10 years.

With Indiana’s new draft map, Republicans aren’t just letting Mrvan keep his seat out of the kindness of their hearts or because they want to eliminate their own vulnerabilities.

“There’s a point at which, if you go after too much, you start raising court challenges that are going to at least risk the possibility that the whole map goes down,” Hershey said.

To target Mrvan, Republicans would have probably had to divide Black and Hispanic populations, which could raise the risk of a lawsuit. Neither party, in places where it is in charge of the redistricting process, wants to risk relinquishing control of the map-drawing to the courts.

“Just because a map can be drawn doesn’t mean it can pass the legislature and survive the courts,” veteran GOP consultant Brad Todd said.

The Indiana map has not been finalized, but GOP insiders say this, or something very similar to it, will be the new map. Democrats will still complain about having only 22 percent of the seats in a state where Biden received 41 percent of the vote last fall. But, from a Democratic perspective, it could have been worse.

Republicans may have passed on cracking a Democratic district in Indiana, but that doesn’t mean they’ll do the same elsewhere.

It’s unlikely that Kentucky Republicans will crack Louisville, considering that both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP Rep. Brett Guthrie have said they shouldn’t do so. But Tennessee Republicans are seriously considering dividing up Nashville (Davidson County), which would hinder Democrat Jim Cooper’s ability to win reelection in the 5th District.

So just because a party might be able to squeeze every last possible seat through redistricting, it doesn’t mean they will embrace the opportunity.