Redistricting’s Bottom Line Might Surprise You

by Stuart Rothenberg June 15, 2011 · 9:36 AM EDT

Six months ago, before redistricting had even begun, Republicans were optimistic they would gain additional seats, or, as former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie put it, that they would “gain or protect” 15 to 25 seats.

Not surprisingly, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) disagreed, arguing the process wouldn’t be the “disaster” for his party that some thought it would be (though he never said exactly who had predicted that).

In January, I estimated in this space that redistricting would be close to a wash, with neither party making major gains, but with Republicans solidifying many of their unexpected 2010 gains.

With redistricting completed in only a few states but the writing on the wall in many others, it now appears that Democrats — not the GOP — will make a small, single-digit gain from redistricting when the process finally is complete.

Republicans will indeed protect a substantial number of the marginal seats they won last year, though probably toward the bottom of the 15-25 seat range (or even below it).

Democratic gains in just two states, Illinois and California, will almost completely offset the party’s losses elsewhere. On the GOP side, gains in North Carolina, Texas and Georgia almost offset Republican losses in Illinois and California.

There are two caveats about reading too much into any bottom line on redistricting results. First, actual House “gains” and “losses” in November depend on more than district fundamentals. The candidates matter a great deal, as does the broad political environment.

Second, there is considerable subjectivity in these estimates — there is no official handbook to tell anyone at what point a gain or loss has occurred. Estimates are just that: informed guesses about what outcomes are most likely, making them inherently tentative and subject to second-guessing.

For example, some are estimating Democratic gains in California of four or five seats, and that’s possible. But I have put Democratic gains (and Republican losses) in the state at only three.

Two California Republican incumbents, Reps. David Dreier and Gary Miller, are without good districts or good options, while a third, Elton Gallegly, is in only slightly better shape.

Beyond those three, Reps. Brian Bilbray, Dan Lungren, Jeff Denham and Mary Bono Mack face difficult re-election races. But, according to data supplied by the National Republican Congressional Committee, all are in districts won comfortably by 2010 GOP Senate nominee Carly Fiorina, and all start off no worse than even money for re-election.

At least three California Democratic incumbents are in districts made substantially more Republican and are at various degrees of risk next year: Reps. Jim Costa, Loretta Sanchez and Lois Capps. In addition, at least one new district could be competitive depending on the year, and vulnerable Rep. Dennis Cardoza’s (D) district was made even more competitive.

If my estimate for California is at the low end of the range for Democrats, my estimate for Illinois (a Democratic gain of five seats and a GOP loss of six) is toward the top end of the range.

Elsewhere, I have treated Iowa as a draw, while others will see a one-seat GOP loss. While registration figures in the new 3rd district slightly favor Rep. Leonard Boswell (D), Republican Rep. Tom Latham should have some advantages and is no worse than even money in the contest. I regard the district as a “fair fight.”

I’ve given Republicans the new seat in Georgia and also assumed they can make Rep. John Barrow’s (D) district significantly more Republican, seriously threatening his hold on it.

Like others, I have assumed Democrats will gain new seats in Arizona and Nevada. I give Republicans a new seat in Utah, but I have not assumed Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson’s seat will also become reliably Republican, even though that is very possible. I also have not assumed that Democrats will add a third district in Nevada.

I assume the loss of a seat for New Jersey results in a fair-fight district pitting Democratic and Republican incumbents against each other. And while Republicans should be able to solidify some of their incumbents in Ohio, I have assumed each party will lose a seat.

I have not assumed partisan changes in Minnesota (split control, with Republicans hoping to solidify Rep. Chip Cravaack’s district), Wisconsin (Republican control could change after recall elections this summer) or Washington state, where a new district could be either competitive or clearly Democratic. Or in New York, where the outlook is murky.

In addition, I haven’t made assumptions about two states where Democrats control the process but where outcomes remain unclear: West Virginia and Maryland.

I have also intentionally not included Florida, where Republicans already hold a 19-6 advantage in the House delegation and where a new state law limits what Republicans can do to improve their standing, even with the state getting two new seats.

Given all of this, Republicans so far look headed for no change from redistricting, while Democrats are poised to add a seat, with more opportunities pending. If Democrats press their advantage in both West Virginia and Maryland, they could add a couple of more districts, with corresponding GOP losses. Changes in Florida would also affect the national bottom line.

If all of this analysis and these assumptions hold — and they probably won’t — it is the Democrats, not the GOP, who could gain slightly from redistricting, though Republicans would indeed solidify themselves in some districts where they looked very vulnerable following the 2010 midterms.