Democrats' House targets vanish as GOP redraws new mapsSeptember 15, 2021
House Democrats spent the past two elections crowing about ousting Republicans from longtime red districts that had suddenly grown competitive. Now, Republicans are about to make many of those targets disappear from the battlefield entirely.
GOP mapmakers are readying to shore up more than a dozen of the most hotly contested House battlegrounds from the past four years, narrowing Democrats’ path to maintain control of the House, as they prepare for midterm elections that are historically tough for the party in power.
Democrats got their first taste of a shrinking playing field on Tuesday, when Republican state lawmakers in Indiana unveiled a draft congressional plan that would transform the state's most competitive district into a relatively safe red seat by siphoning off voters in deep-blue Marion County, which includes Indianapolis.
Just like that, Indiana's 5th District, where both parties spent well over $10 million last year, became an easy hold for freshman GOP Rep. Victoria Spartz.
"Clearly, this is a bit of a kneecapping to anyone who's interested in running as a Democrat in Indiana-05," said Christina Hale, the 2020 Democratic nominee who narrowly lost to Spartz.
"The deck is stacked," Hale said. It's not impossible for Democrats to seriously contest the seat again, she conceded, but it won't be competitive soon. "We probably won't see a real race for a number of years."
Even with Congress more narrowly divided than it's been in two decades, Democrats are stuck on defense — still scarred from 2020, when they vowed to send Republicans deeper into the minority only to end up losing 13 incumbents of their own.
Now Republicans get a total reset in many of the places where they had their closest calls last year. Besides Indiana, they can also easily shore up the increasingly purple suburbs with ruby-red rural areas in competitive districts in places like South Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Utah and — perhaps most importantly — Texas, where Republicans are poised to bolster at least a half-dozen vulnerable members.
The moves will all boost Republicans' chances to flip control of the House, and top Democratic strategists are well aware of the headwinds.
"It's easier to defend the castle than to storm it," said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The first priority is to defend those incumbents," he added.
The DCCC telegraphed its strategy earlier this year when it announced it would target 21 Republican districts. The list was notably devoid of any targets in North Carolina and only two each in Florida and Texas — three states where Republicans have total control of the redistricting process. By this point in the past election, the committee had declared plans to contest twice as many GOP seats.
The DCCC's own post-election autopsy revealed the shortcomings of its 2020 game plan. Maloney, who replaced Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) as the chair last year, has said it was a strategic error to spend so much money against Republicans when many Democratic incumbents needed more help.
"The obligation is on the other team to win seats. We already hold the majority," Maloney said. "So my job is to hold the ones I got, and to beat a few of them. And we're going to do that, and I can do that with a tight disciplined battlefield."
The rapid political alignment that accompanied Donald Trump's rise opened up dozens of offensive targets for House Democrats. They took back the House in 2018 in large part thanks to suburbanites who abandoned longtime GOP members in order to place a check on Trump.
But some of that snapped back in 2020. Though Trump continued to struggle in affluent, well-educated areas, Republican congressional incumbents still prevailed. Now the GOP gets even more insurance with the coming redistricting, despite Democrats' promise to lean on state courts to police gerrymandering.
"You've got to pass the smell test in terms of the court system. But that can be done, and we ought to be able to boost those seats a lot stronger," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former House GOP campaign committee chair.
Of the 33 GOP incumbents who won in 2020 by 8 points or fewer — a generous margin for a House race — 15 represent states where Republicans have total control over redistricting, according to a POLITICO analysis.
Of the 33 Democratic incumbents who won by the same margin, only 5 live in a state where their party will craft new maps: Bustos and Reps. Lauren Underwood and Sean Casten in Illinois and Reps. Steven Horsford and Susie Lee in Nevada.
Though Republicans didn't lose a single incumbent in 2020, many had to run far ahead of Trump. Spartz, for example, beat her opponent by 4 points. Trump only bested Biden by half that margin in Spartz's district, a pattern that played out for GOP candidates across the country in 2020.
But new district lines will ease their path to their reelections, at least for the next few elections.
Spartz's district is highly likely to no longer include Indianapolis' Marion County, which she lost by about 30 points to Hale. Instead, the GOP's initial proposal gives her more white, working-class regions, which look set to perform more reliably for Republicans for the next 10 years.
Or consider the relative ease with which Republicans can shore up GOP Rep. Ann Wagner. Trump and Biden virtually tied in her suburban Missouri district in 2020 — and while both parties dumped millions into the race, Wagner won somewhat comfortably.
Now, Missouri Republicans can easily push some of Wagner’s Democratic constituents in St. Louis County to Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and take in more of the surrounding red counties, nudging the seat out of swing territory.
Meanwhile, South Carolina's 1st District, a Lowcountry seat that hosted two of the closest House contests in 2018 or 2020, can easily cede some of the growing Charleston suburbs to House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and transform into something more GOP-friendly.
As these districts become more Republican, recruiting strong candidates will become more difficult for Democrats.
Former Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham, who won the South Carolina district in a 2018 upset and barely lost it in 2020, decided to run for governor instead of seeking a rematch with GOP Rep. Nancy Mace. Democrats have yet to land a strong candidate.
In Indiana, Hale said she had not been seriously considering a rematch because of the looming remap: "I really in my bones felt I would get drawn out of the district."
GOP mapmakers can also deploy similar tactics to help incumbents such as Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.), Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.), French Hill (R-Ark.), Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) and Dan Bishop (R-N.C.), and Carlos Giménez (R-Fla.) and María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.).
But nowhere will Republicans' redistricting pen be more powerful than in Texas.
Democrats competed for 10 Republican seats in the suburbs of Texas's biggest cities. Though they didn't flip any, Trump got at or under 51 percent of the vote in 9 GOP-held seats.
"We had a great opportunity," said Bustos, the DCCC chair last cycle.
"I saw Texas as being a state that could go from red, to a little bit purple, to blue in a matter of, I used to say — what — two, four, six, eight years," Bustos said. "And now with the Republican control of the Legislature and the governor's mansion, and you just kind of wonder what's going to happen."
There will be some limitations on just how much Republicans can fight changing demographics in some areas. And Democrats will be able to create some easy new pickup opportunities of their own in states where they control redistricting, such as Illinois, New York, Maryland and New Mexico.
And the DCCC maintains that tying Republicans to their most extreme members and Covid apathy will open up other opportunities — as will the maps drawn by Democratic legislatures and independent commissions.
Republicans also note that the bigger threat to the Democratic House majority is President Joe Biden's sagging approval ratings and the long odds that presidents’ parties face during their first midterm. And they argue that both parties adjust lines to shore up swing districts every 10 years, with new data on the electorate.
"That's just what happens every redistricting cycle," said Adam Kincaid, the executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust. "People want to make it sound like something nefarious. But to me, it's just a simple analysis: Yes, I expect that there will be fewer competitive seats, just like there were a decade ago and the decade before that."