Fading swing seats show how redistricting kills competition

One casualty of this year's congressional redistricting process across the country is the swing seat in a House district

Via AP news wire
Thursday 09 December 2021 18:59 GMT
Redistricting Texas
Redistricting Texas (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Republicans in the fast-growing suburbs north of Dallas had a scare last year.

Democrat Joe Biden came within a single percentage point of then-President Donald Trump in the congressional district represented by Republican Van Taylor. Though Taylor easily won reelection to the U.S. House, Trump’s narrow margin was a warning sign that a typically easy win might not be so easy anymore.

So when Republicans, who control the Texas Legislature, redrew the state's congressional maps this fall, they protected Taylor. They scattered his constituents into multiple districts, consolidating GOP voters to make safe districts. One is a bizarrely shaped tripod: a narrow leg jabs into a suburb to grab Republican-leaning voters, while the other two legs reach into rural areas all the way to the Oklahoma border.

Taylor’s new district isn’t competitive anymore. It voted for Trump by 15 percentage points. The Justice Department this week sued Texas, saying the state's new district lines discriminate against minority voters.

As the country approaches the halfway mark in its once-a-decade redrawing of political maps, competitive congressional districts are becoming rarer and rarer. Lawmakers in both parties. but especially Republicans. are creating districts that shore up their vulnerable members and trying to ensure easy reelections.

The new maps are likely to accelerate the demise of competitive elections, a warning sign for the health of democracy, experts say. Increasingly, party primaries are the contests most likely to unseat an incumbent. That leaves representatives catering to their party's base, with little incentive to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters. Ultimately, it feeds the heightened partisan polarization that has poisoned Washington.

“It's definitely a problem and you see it to some degree every cycle,” said Joe Kabourek of RepresentUS, an advocate for overhauling redistricting. “What the lack of competitive seats means is elections are basically over before they begin.”

In the last presidential election, only 13 of 435 House seats switched between the two parties. It's evidence of a decline in competitiveness that dates from the middle of the 20th century and has accelerated as the two main political parties have become more ideological. In the 1950s, political handicappers ranked about 130 of the seats in the House as competitive, but now only categorize about 48 like that, said Josh Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Governmental Affairs Institute.

Huder notes redistricting isn't the only cause. An even bigger factor is that voters are choosing to live in places where they are surrounded by like-minded neighbors — Democrats clustering in cities, Republicans in rural areas, for example. That makes it more likely that districts will be dominated by voters of just one party.

The decline of competition has helped lead to growing partisanship. Just 19 of 213 House Republicans recently voted for the new infrastructure bill, a measure with broad bipartisan support in polls and in the Senate.

“It shifts the dynamics and incentives of members of Congress pretty dramatically when you have safe seats,” Huder said. He noted that most representatives only need to win over “partisans who are typically much more extreme” to stay in power.

This redistricting cycle is poised to make it worse.

“It’s almost inevitable that we’re going to see polarization in these really safe districts,” said Adam Podowitz-Thomas of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which monitors redistricting. “It’s going to be harder for moderates or people who work with the other side to get elected in these districts.”

Both parties agree that the number of potential swing districts is dwindling.

The main Republican redistricting organization, the National Republican Redistricting Trust, found that, in the states that have drawn new maps, there are now 15 fewer seats where the margin of victory was 10 percentage points or less in 2020. Its Democratic counterpart, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, tracks competitiveness slightly differently but finds 16 fewer seats.

The examples are widespread in the 21 states that have finished redistricting. In Illinois, one of the last remaining moderate Republicans, Rep. Adam Kinzinger announced he would not run for reelection after Democrats dismantled his district west of Chicago district.

“In this day, to prevail, you must belong to a tribe,” Kinzinger said in a video announcing his retirement. “Our political parties only survive by appealing to the most motivated and extreme elements within it.”

In Georgia, the Republican-controlled legislature eliminated two competitive suburban Atlanta congressional districts represented by Democrats, turning Rep. Lucy McBath's swing district into a heavily Republican one and Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux's district into a safe Democratic seat. In Utah, Republicans transformed a Salt Lake City-based swing seat into one Trump won by 16 percentage points.

Colorado firebrand Republican Lauren Boebert, who won her 2020 race by 6 percentage points, now has a easier path to reelection. But the independent commission that drew Colorado's lines created a swing seat north of Denver.

More swing districts may be on the chopping block:

—In Florida, Republicans are mulling turning Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy's seat into safe GOP district.

—Democrats worry that Kansas Republicans could target Rep. Sharice Davids, who ousted a Republican in 2018 in Kansas City's western suburbs.

—In New York, multiple moderate Republicans, including John Katko upstate and Nicole Malliotakis on Staten Island, could see their swing seats changed

—In Virginia, newly proposed maps eliminate the district of a prominent Democratic moderate, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, although overall they maintain the same number of competitive districts in the state.

But no state is likely to outdo Texas, which transformed as many as nine competitive into safe seats. That was part of an explicit strategy from Republicans who watched anxiously as their state became a congressional battleground.

Democrats picked up two House seats in the 2018 election and then fought the GOP to a standstill last year. With the state's growth powered by voters of color who lean Democratic, Republicans drew a map that would lock in their gains and avoid having to worry about the Texas seats. The map spurred the legal challenge from the Biden administration, alleging the restricting plan dilutes Latinos' votes, particularly in the Dallas area.

Dallas' northern suburbs are a case study in killing competition. The Democratic voters in the southern end of Taylor's district were moved to create a newly safe Democratic district. In exchange, Taylor's district expanded into conservative rural areas east of the suburbs.

For Republicans the moves save incumbents — and money. Republicans and their allies spent $20 million defending Texas' vulnerable, GOP-held congressional seats last year, said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust.

“Now they can go spend that money on places where they can go on offense,” Kincaid said. “You'd always rather be on offense than defense.”

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