Fight Over Congressional Redistricting Begins With Key Gubernatorial Contests

Stuart Rothenberg February 8, 2017 · 9:00 AM EST

While the 2020 census is still three years away, the fight for control of the congressional redistricting process is underway -- in developing gubernatorial contests in a handful of key states.

Yes, there are plenty of unknowns about reapportionment and redistricting, since the courts, the Trump Justice Department and state legislators will each play a role in the final outcome. We don’t even yet know which states will gain or lose seats.

But the governors elected next year will be in office when legislatures draw new congressional district lines before the 2022 elections. And in most states, governors can veto maps drawn by state legislatures. 

Although the 2018 and 2020 electoral results could change things dramatically, it now appears that three states will be at the front lines in the partisan congressional redistricting battle: Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Each will elect a governor next year who, because of the veto, will have a role in redistricting.

Republicans controlled redistricting in all three states after the last census, and they were very aggressive in drawing maps that maximized their advantage. Republicans currently sit in 38 of the states’ 52 House districts even though the three states are widely viewed as competitive.

Ohio currently has 16 GOP representatives and only four Democrats, while Pennsylvania has 13 Republicans and five Democrats. Michigan sends nine Republicans but only five Democrats to Congress. 

Those numbers surely resulted from strong GOP midterm showings, but they also reflect the very effective mapmaking skills of party strategists. (There are other states, of course, where Democrats and Republicans showed great creativity, including Texas, Maryland and Georgia.)

In Pennsylvania, Republicans control the state Senate 34-16 and the state House 121-82. But the state’s governor is Democrat Tom Wolf, who is eligible to run for a second term. Unless Democrats make dramatic gains in legislative races, they will need to re-elect Wolf to have a role in the next redistricting.

Wolf’s predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett, lost his bid for re-election, making him the first Keystone State governor denied re-election since governors were allowed to seek a second term. 

In Ohio, voters easily passed a measure in 2015 altering the state’s very partisan legislative redistricting process. Some in the state, including GOP Gov. John Kasich, want to end what has been termed “hyper-partisanship” in drawing congressional districts, as well. 

If that happens over the next few years, it almost guarantees Democratic gains given the current map, which maximizes Republican seats.

If the redistricting process in the state remains unchanged, Democrats would need dramatic gains in the Senate (where the GOP holds a 24-9 advantage), or in the state House (with its 66-33 GOP advantage) to have input about the new lines. Or, Democrats would need to take back the governorship, since Kasich is barred from seeking a third term.

Right now, a handful of Republicans are mentioned as potentially interested in running for governor, including Ohio Secretary of State John Husted, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor and state Attorney General Mike DeWine, who has already acknowledged he plans on running. 

The Democrats’ potential field is more unclear, since the party currently holds no statewide offices and is licking its wounds after Hillary Clinton’s disastrous showing in the state last year.

In Michigan, Republicans have a large 27-11 majority in the state Senate but a narrower 63-47 edge in the state House. The governor, Republican Rick Snyder, is in his second term and is prohibited from seeking a third term.

Though Donald Trump carried the state narrowly last year, Michigan has elected many more Democrats than Republicans for statewide and national offices over the past few decades.

Two other populous states with gubernatorial contests in 2018 could also be worth watching for redistricting implications: Illinois and Florida.

Democrats hold comfortable majorities in both houses of Illinois’s General Assembly, but the sitting governor, Republican Bruce Rauner, has already announced that he will seek re-election in 2018.

If he wins, he could stop the creation of another Democratic map, if Republicans in the General Assembly can prevent Democrats in the state House and state Senate from overriding his veto. The current congressional delegation includes 11 Democrats and 7 Republicans, though Democrats had hoped to win 12 or 13 seats when they initially drew the map.

In Florida, Republicans hold 16 of the state’s 27 congressional districts, even though a new court-drawn map benefited Democrats. The GOP has substantial majorities in both houses of the state Legislature, as well as the governor. But Rick Scott (R) isn’t eligible to seek re-election, giving Democrats an opportunity to win his office – and have a role in redistricting. 

Gubernatorial outcomes in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and possibly also Illinois and Florida are only one part of the larger reapportionment and redistricting fight. But those elections mark the first skirmish in the all-important process, and because of that, the developing contests for governor in those states certainly bear watching.