Road to Democratic House Majority Bypasses Pennsylvania

The road to a Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives used to run through the industrial battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

That’s no longer so as Republicans, in control of the largest number of state legislatures since 1928, have redrawn congressional boundaries to bolster their 2010 election gains and cordon Democrats into concentrated urban districts. The new lines will make it difficult for Democrats to pick up enough seats to gain the House majority in November.

“Republicans have found it easier than ever to quarantine Democrats in very lopsided districts,” said David Wasserman, House editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Democrats would need to win on Republican turf in order to take back the House.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have taken advantage of their influence in states including Illinois and California to reshape districts in a way intended to boost their electoral chances.

Nonpartisan studies of the new maps project a gain of one or two House seats for Republicans in the November election. The party’s goal in redrawing congressional districts after the 2010 Census was to cement gains from two years ago, when Republicans picked up 63 House seats, the most since 1946. Democrats would need 25 seats to take the majority.

“I expect Republicans will retain control of the House,” said Michael McDonald, an associate government professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who studies voting demographics.

Gerlach, Meehan, Barletta

Following redistricting in Pennsylvania, Republicans Jim Gerlach, Patrick Meehan and Lou Barletta -- previously considered top targets for Democrats because they represent districts that elected President Barack Obama by wide margins in 2008 -- aren’t in the first or second tier of Democratic opportunities, according to the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

McDonald said the trend is fueled by the tendency of Democratic voters to be concentrated in urban areas and Republican voters to be spread across larger expanses that are more easily redrawn to create majority-Republican districts.

Democrats dispute the notion that redistricting has imperiled their campaign to take over the House majority in the 113th Congress.

“Republicans have about as much an advantage on redistricting as they do on Medicare -- zero,” said Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Any objective analysis of redistricting shows that it is a wash.”

Illinois Districts

In Illinois, which is losing one of its 19 U.S. House seats, Democrats divided six Republican districts and seek to elect five new Democrats. In California, a new citizen-run process may convert three or four Republican-leaning seats into pickups for Democrats.

Israel identified other populous states where Democrats benefited from redistricting as Florida, New York, Washington and Texas.

According to the Democratic campaign committee, in January 2011, before redistricting, 61 Republicans represented U.S. House districts that Obama carried in 2008, and 14 of them also were won by 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. In the new districts, the numbers are 64 and 18, according to the Democratic committee.

Obama and Kerry

The National Republican Campaign Committee said its analysis showed the opposite -- that redistricting put fewer Republicans in Obama and Kerry districts, and more Democrats in areas carried by 2008 Republican nominee John McCain and President George W. Bush. “Redistricting has left Democrats with an even steeper climb,” said Republican committee spokesman Paul Lindsay.

Control of redistricting, while helpful, isn’t a guarantee of political success. Six years ago Democrats won the U.S. House aided by a wave that was sufficient to overcome Republican advantages in the prior redistricting.

In any event, the number of seats Democrats have to pick up is closer to 40, Wasserman said, citing losses Democrats are likely to sustain from retirements in districts favored to go Republican, districts where Democrats are running against each other, and those with newly vulnerable Democrats.

Wasserman also wrote in an April 5 memo that Republicans made up 80 percent of the incumbents who gained partisan advantage through redistricting, saving “between 10 and 15 seats they would have otherwise lost.”

Five Seats

Republicans took over five seats each in Pennsylvania and Ohio in 2010. Now, only one of those districts in each state -- represented by Mike Fitzpatrick in Pennsylvania and Jim Renacci in Ohio -- is considered highly competitive, according to Rothenberg.

Freshman Barletta’s Pennsylvania district, held by Democrat Paul Kanjorski from 1985 through 2010, is a prime example of how Republicans fortified their once-vulnerable members in battleground states. Pennsylvania Republicans have large majorities in the state House and Senate, and Governor Tom Corbett is a Republican.

Republicans carved Democratic-dominated Scranton and Wilkes-Barre from Barletta’s district and added them to the neighboring one of Democratic Representative Tim Holden. After losing his first two congressional campaigns to Kanjorski, Barletta is now considered safe by Rothenberg, which no longer lists his 11th district as competitive.

‘Amazing Redraw’

“It’s a pretty amazing redraw to go from one of the top races in the country to not even on the list,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor at Rothenberg. Through redistricting, “in many states, Republicans shored up the gains they already made in 2010,” he said.

Republicans shaped Barletta’s district into a narrow band that stretches almost from Pennsylvania’s border with Maryland to New York. By conceding the neighboring district to Holden, a former county sheriff in his 10th term of office, Republicans bolstered Barletta and Republican Tom Marino by adding more Republican-rich precincts to their districts.

Ohio Republicans followed the same strategy, creating a new Democratic district in Columbus to shore up seats outside the city. “That just shows you what their focus has been,” said Wasserman.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Democratic incumbents Jason Altmire and Mark Critz are in a primary competition for the single district Republicans packed them into, shaped like a shovel digging into the south-central part of the state beyond Johnstown and stretching to the Ohio border past Pittsburgh. The new map gave Republican Pat Meehan an additional 35,000 to 40,000 rural voters, who tend to be Republican.

“Republicans this time were not expansionist, they were not imperialist,” said Terry Madonna, who teaches politics at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “It’s one of the most efficient, effective gerrymanders in history.”

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