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Let’s Keep Talking About Redistricting

This is Part 2 of an interview with David Wasserman, the House editor of The Cook Political Report. Mr. Wasserman is Cook’s resident redistricting expert and the author of “Better Know a District,” The Cook Political Report’s 2012 redistricting outlook. (Readers might also want to check out Cook’s redistricting scorecard for background).

If you missed it, Part 1 (which is here) focused on the redistricting process generally. Today, we’ll delve more deeply into what’s happening in pivotal states and districts. The interview was conducted by Nate Silver and Micah Cohen (with the help of a few Twitter followers of @fivethirtyeight).

NS: In Wisconsin you have recalls against members of both parties, but primarily Republicans. How much of an impact will it make if the G.O.P. redistricts now or after the recalls play out and control might be split?

DW: Republicans are certainly rushing to get redistricting done before there’s any chance that Democrats will jam their foot in the door. I think the outlook for Republicans to get it done is fairly good. There’s no reason to believe that Republicans won’t pass the best map they can in time in Wisconsin.

NS: How much of a swing could there be based on court rulings in Florida?

DW: Well, Florida is really the big wild card remaining in this process besides the lawsuit that’s inevitable in Texas. In Florida, voters passed ballot initiatives in 2010 that sought to tie the hands of state legislators to gerrymander, particularly Republicans to draw districts for themselves. I think anyone would agree that a 19-to-6 edge in the House delegation in Florida is a very overstated advantage for Republicans in a state that voted for Barack Obama. If that gerrymander is unraveled and if judges rule in the Democrats’ favor to enforce these ballot amendments and to preserve the integrity of counties and cities in Florida, then Democrats could end up picking up up to five seats in Florida.

But if the bipartisan lawsuit to throw out these new rules (succeeds) — and I say bipartisan because Corrine Brown, an African-American, Democratic congresswoman from North Florida, has joined on to the Republican suit — then Republicans could probably draw two new districts for themselves. So there’s a lot on the line in Florida.

NS: You mentioned Corinne Brown. How often does a party work against its own best interests because individual incumbents or other stakeholders have their own designs on staying in power?

DW: In addition to the usual partisan warfare, there’s a lot of intraparty squabbling over the best approach to drawing districts.

On the Democratic side, there is no question that there’s been tension between the Congressional Black Caucus and Democratic strategists who are seeking to maximize the party’s gains overall. That was first on display in Missouri, where the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Emanuel Cleaver, who represents a district in Kansas City (Missouri’s 5th), engineered the Democratic votes in the legislature to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto and pass a map that eliminated Russ Carnahan on the other side of the state. That certainly didn’t make Democratic strategists very happy.

In South Carolina, Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American Democrat in the House, has expressed support for a map that consolidates most black voters in South Carolina into his district and fails to create a second African-American majority district (South Carolina’s 6th). That’s not what Democrats had hoped for.

And in Florida, Corrine Brown has joined on to a lawsuit to block the enforcement of the Fair Districts Florida ballot amendments that would potentially win Democrats as many as five new seats. So there certainly is tension between black legislators and Democratic strategists in the redistricting process.

On the Republican side, we’re seeing some displeasure among elements of the Tea Party from state to state that the redistricting process is being used to help incumbents who have been around a long time at the expense of newcomers who would take a different approach.

NS: Because of Florida and California, are we likely to see a more competitive map over the next decade compared to the last one?

DW: It all depends on the court rulings.

In California, out of 265 House elections that were held in the last decade, there was just one that produced a change in party. Even amid three consecutive wave elections, only one seat produced a change! In Florida there was slightly more competitiveness, but still not the level of competitiveness you’d expect from a truly marginal state. So if the lines were untangled you could see perhaps 15 seats that lean Republican and perhaps eight seats that lean Democratic, but four truly competitive districts, or perhaps more.

MC: Do we have an idea what the House would look like if over the next decade every state adopted a California-style, nonpartisan process, and redistricting was done completely without regard to partisan concerns?

DW: We’ll see in California because California is home to more than one out of nine seats in the House. If there were more than 10 new members of Congress from California, then that could provide a preview of what would happen if other states adopted similar measures. But you also had a unique case in California, where the lines were so gerrymandered to begin with that there was a lot of potential for change as a result of reform. There are plenty of states where the lines don’t look all that grotesque.

NS: Can we extrapolate from California’s case that gerrymandering generally hurts Democrats more than Republicans?

DW: Gerrymandering has tended to hurt Democrats in part because there has been an emphasis on drawing minority-majority districts. That emphasis has packed minority voters into very heavily Democratic districts and essentially whitewashed many of the surrounding districts. That’s why you saw such a huge Republican wave in the South in 1994 right after a lot of new majority-minority districts were drawn.

One of the reasons why Democrats have had a hard time winning the House for much of the past 20 years is that the median district in the country is a few points more Republican than the national political average because of that distribution of seats.

NS: Here’s a question from Twitter: What other states have a decent likelihood of passing nonpartisan redistricting reform, either mid-decade or before 2020?

DW: Outside of California, the next states I would look to would be the states where ballot amendments really can bypass the state legislature and the entrenched politicians who are accustomed to drawing these lines. But in states without a mechanism for voters to put a measure directly on the ballot, I think it’s virtually impossible that incumbent legislators would cede the power they currently have to draw the lines.

NS: In states like Arizona, Texas and Colorado where you have an increasing Hispanic population and the districts may be changing, would you expect the G.O.P. to draw districts more cautiously to account for that?

DW: Republicans don’t have control in Arizona; that’s a commission state. So a new district will be drawn (as) the commission sees fit. It could be a swing seat.

In Texas, Republicans really are placing a gamble on the Dallas-Fort Worth. In their initial draft, they unexpectedly chose not to draw a new Hispanic-majority district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, which would have shored up — some would use the term “bleached” — surrounding districts such as the one held by Pete Sessions (Texas’s 32nd), which is now plurality Hispanic in North Dallas. Instead they chose to draw a new Republican-leaning district in that area. That could blow up over the next 10 years as the area does become more Hispanic. But in their calculation they figure that they might as well gamble for that new seat instead of simply ceding it. Democrats are hoping that the dam ultimately breaks there.

NS: How many incumbent versus incumbent primary battles are we likely to see? I guess a lot of them will be in California, but where else might we see them?

DW: We could see not only incumbent versus incumbent primaries, but some incumbent versus incumbent general elections as well. The first started shaping up in April in Iowa. We always knew there was a strong chance that Leonard Boswell, a Democrat from Des Moines, and Tom Latham, a Republican from Ames, would have to face off against each other because they live close to each other in the middle of the state, and since the state was losing a district.

But we could also see very tense incumbent versus incumbent primaries. One high-dollar affair is shaping up in the San Fernando Valley of California. The race between rhyming congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley has been brewing for the past 12 years. There’s plenty of bad blood between these two members in part because each of them has been competing for the same turf in the redistricting process. Now, under the commission, it’s likely that we’ll see a new Hispanic-majority district in the San Fernando Valley, and that Sherman and Berman will have to spend millions fighting over the same seat if both of them want to remain in Congress.

NS: Why don’t they flip a coin, and one of them goes to a new district?

DW: No congressman wants to work to introduce themselves to a totally new district. After all, most congressmen feel entitled to keep a lot of their constituents.

NS: To what extent is that a priority – keeping your constituents versus just having a more partisan district?

DW: There are two ways to weaken someone in redistricting. The first is to make their district less favorable in partisan terms. But the second is to simply give them a lot of new constituents.

In West Virginia, for example, there aren’t a lot of areas that are more or less Republican than others. The state’s performance at the presidential level is fairly uniform. But Democrats in charge of the Legislature and governorship could choose to simply shake things up by dividing both Republican districts in half and trading the two panhandles between districts.

And in some states there are considerations beyond just new constituents and partisanship. For example, Mike Ross, the Democratic congressman from southern Arkansas, wanted access to a new media market in preparation for a bid for governor. So his district was extended into northwest Arkansas, a very fast-growing region of the state.

All in all, I’d say there are more politicians who would prefer to keep their current constituents than politicians who would want many new constituents for just a point of improvement in the partisanship of their district.

NS: Here’s another Twitter question: Any suggestion on the most likely scenarios for New Jersey’s lost seat?

DW: That’s a state where there is a commission, but unlike the commission in California, the commissioners are appointed by party bosses in the State Legislature.

In New Jersey, each party has its own dream scenario, and Republicans would love to eliminate Bill Pascrell in Passaic County. Democrats would love to eliminate Leonard Lance in Hunterdon County. And no one knows what the tie-breaking member of the commission — appointed by the chief justice of the State Supreme Court — will go with.

NS: Turning to New York, if Democrats had controlled New York how could they have played with that map?

DW: They could have wreaked havoc upstate. As it stands, there’s a lot of debate — including on your esteemed blog — as to how New York would be carved up in redistricting. And anyone who tells you they know for sure how New York is going to go is lying unless their name is Andrew Cuomo, Sheldon Silver or Dean Skelos. But if Democrats were in total control in New York, they would be able to weaken as many as three or four of the upstate Republicans who rode into Congress on a surfboard in 2010.

NS: When you have a state like New York where one Democrat has to lose their seat, how is that game played? Seniority matters, obviously. But how is the balance struck between having the governor, the party leader or the consultants and the strategists design the optimal map and taking into account the opinion of each incumbent?

DW: That’s why lobbyists are hired. That’s what we’re already seeing in New York. The truth of the matter is that redistricting negotiations will take place between three people, as we said: Governor Cuomo, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos in an Albany back room, and incumbents will certainly have some input into the process, particularly senior incumbents. But keep in mind that the powers that be in redistricting often aren’t at all concerned with what looks pretty on a map. Just look at a map of New York City’s Congressional districts right now.

NS: Here’s another question from Twitter: Is Kathy Hochul safe in New York 26?

DW: If you’re looking at a map of the current districts in western New York, there’s a very awkward barbell stretching from downtown Rochester to downtown Buffalo. That’s the district held by Louise Slaughter (New York’s 28th). Slaughter would actually be happier with a more moderate district that is based in Monroe County, in her home base of Rochester, which has just about the perfect number of people for one Congressional district. If you divide up her constituents in Buffalo and Niagara Falls among Brian Higgins in the 27th District and Kathy Hochul in the 26th District, you get two safer Democratic-leaning districts for both Higgins and Hochul.

It’s far from a guarantee that Hochul would be out of the woods in 2012 against a potentially stronger Republican challenger. But that’s just one scenario that data geeks are talking about.

NS: Let’s say you have a Democrat who gets elected in a Republican district, like Hochul. Do parties make the mistake of going too far to protect that incumbent?

DW: Even in a really down year for incumbents,  the incumbent re-election rate is still typically somewhere close to 95 percent.

Keep in mind, even when a redistricting scenario makes an incumbent’s re-election race look almost impossible, we saw some incredible Houdini acts in 2002 on the part of incumbents. In Pennsylvania, for example, Tim Holden, a conservative Democrat, was basically drawn into an extremely Republican district held by a very safe Republican member of Congress named George Gekas. And Holden said when the map was released that Republicans had just written his political epitaph. He came back to win that race 51-49 (percent) even in a very conservative district. There have (also) been examples of Republicans who have survived against the odds.

NS: Does a congressman have to reside in the district they run in?

DW: No, members of Congress don’t have to reside in the district they run in. And in fact, there are plenty of members of Congress who don’t live in their districts today, and don’t even vote in the elections they run in.

In Illinois, for example, there are several members of Congress for whom this is true. In 2010, I think there were three and possibly more members who were elected without votes from themselves: Bobby Schilling, Luis Gutiérrez and Joe Walsh; two Republicans and one Democrat.

We’re already seeing plenty of district shopping. In Iowa, for example, Democrats had candidates lined up, had incumbents lined up to run in three of the four districts. But Christie Vilsack, the former first lady of Iowa and the wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, badly wanted to run for the House. Even though she and Tom Vilsack hail from the southeastern corner of the state, Christie Vilsack chose to launch a campaign for Congress in the northwestern corner of the state — in the new Fourth District against Steve King. Now, there is no doubt she’ll be labeled a carpetbagger, but it is a fascinating example of how you don’t have to have a base or live in your district in order to run. Although, it’s likely Christie Vilsack will move to Ames in order to become a resident of that district. (Note: Indeed, Ms. Vilsack has made the move.)

NS: But what about an incumbent like Dennis Kucinich, who might move not just to a new district but a new state?

DW: Redistricting might be the only enterprise in which you can fairly compare LeBron (James) and Dennis Kucinich. Leaving Cleveland is no guarantee of winning, and I don’t think Kucinich’s chances are any brighter outside of Ohio.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.