Three Lessons from the Ghost of Redistricting Past

by Nathan L. Gonzales April 1, 2021 · 9:38 AM EDT

While most of the recent redistricting coverage has focused on delayed census data, partisan control of the mapmaking and the inevitable legal fights, that only captures part of the chaos and complexities ahead this cycle. 

Even after the lines are drawn, candidates and campaigns still matter. Some members are going to be forced into competitive races with colleagues from their own party or an incumbent from the other party. And other members could be electorally homeless when the cartographers have completed their work.

Multiple, varying scenarios are not lost on current members on Capitol Hill.

“Not knowing where the new districts would be made it impossible to plan for a 2012 campaign,” former Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire said recently, looking back to a decade ago when Pennsylvania lost a seat during reapportionment. “I knew I was politically endangered, but I didn’t know how or where. So I decided to keep doing my job in my current district, and let the chips fall where they may.”

Here are three important memories from past redistricting cycles that should serve as reminders or instruction for any 2022 election craziness.

Fallout from Chicken Fingers
All the hard work of drawing a congressional map can be ruined by a basket of chicken fingers. Even though districts can be drawn to dramatically favor a particular party or even a specific person, sometimes races don’t turn out as they were planned.

Twenty years ago, Democrats controlled the redistricting process in Georgia. Powerful state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker wanted to draw a district to elect a Black Democrat who just happened to be his son. Nobody dared to grab even a precinct and hurt  Charles “Champ” Walker Jr.’s chances of getting elected. But Champ became his own worst enemy.

It wasn’t long before Republicans found a treasure trove of opposition research from Walker’s early 20s, incidents the Savannah Morning News referred to in a 2002 story as “a few run-ins with the law.”

In the most prominent example, Walker had been arrested one decade earlier for disorderly conduct at an Applebee’s restaurant after a dispute with a waitress over some chicken fingers.

According to the paper, Walker also had been arrested less than a year later for shoplifting a $5.49 SlimFast shaker at a Kroger grocery store. The paper reported Walker had wanted “a particular flavor of SlimFast, whose shaker was absent from the box, so he took one from another flavor on the shelf.” He’d also been driving on a suspended license and had been previously arrested for leaving the scene of an accident, all charges that had been dropped but that weren’t public before his House bid. Walker was never convicted, but the political damage had been done.

In the end, a district that was supposed to elect a young Black Democrat voted for an older white Republican college professor named Max Burns by 8 points. Two years later, when Democrats nominated someone who hadn’t been arrested at Applebee’s, Athens-Clarke County Commissioner John Barrow defeated Burns. But the district still didn’t elect a Black candidate.

District Does a Disappearing Act
Republican David Dreier won a Southern California seat in the 1980 Reagan Revolution, by defeating Democratic incumbent James Frederick Lloyd. Two years later, redistricting pushed Dreier into a primary matchup against fellow GOP Rep. Wayne Grisham, which Dreier won 57 percent to 43 percent. And the congressman didn’t have a particularly close race for more than two decades. 

Then, after the 2010 census, the chairman of the House Rules Committee woke up one morning and his district had evaporated. California’s new citizen redistricting commission drew pieces of his 26th District into seven different new districts, and no more than a third of his constituents resided in a single new district, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections

At the time, the new map put him at odds with fellow Californian Kevin McCarthy, who was content because he benefited from the new lines with a more Republican district, while Dreier arguably didn't have a district at all and wanted to challenge the map. 

Ultimately, Dreier decided not to seek reelection. Inevitably, there will be some members facing a similar decision this cycle.

Battles Can Get Physical
California Democrats Howard Berman and Brad Sherman had served together in the House for 14 years before redistricting after the 2010 census set up one of the ugliest races in recent history. 

Sherman represented 58 percent of the newly drawn 30th District compared to 20 percent for Berman, according to Daily Kos Elections, giving Sherman an advantage in the Los Angeles-area seat in the San Fernando Valley. 

In the new top-two primary that June 2012, Sherman finished ahead of his colleague, 42 percent to 32 percent, so both Democrats moved on to the general election. 

The climax of the race didn’t come until an October debate, when the two came close to a physical altercation over the sponsorship of a bill. CQ Roll Call’s Kyle Trygstad was there and described the scene:

“With Berman already standing, Sherman stood up and shouted into the microphone that Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) sponsored the bill. Berman stepped toward Sherman so they were nearly nose to nose and said Sherman was wrong.

“‘Don’t you dare stand up here … and get in my face,’ Sherman said. He then wrapped his arm around Berman’s shoulder, looked him in the eye and — still holding the microphone to his mouth — said: ‘You want to get into this? Get out of my face.’”

A member of the sheriff’s department stepped in as the two colleagues voluntarily separated from each other. A couple of weeks later, Sherman won 60 percent to 40 percent.

That was far from the only incumbent vs. incumbent primary battle in the country in 2012 as a result of redistricting. 

On the Republican side, David Schweikert defeated Ben Quayle in Arizona, John L. Mica defeated Sandy Adams in Florida and Adam Kinzinger defeated Donald Manzullo in Illinois. And Charles Boustany Jr. defeated Jeff Landry in an intraparty Louisiana race that went to December. 

On the Democratic side, Gary Peters defeated Hansen Clarke in Michigan, Lacy Clay defeated Russ Carnahan in Missouri, Bill Pascrell Jr. defeated Steven R. Rothman in New Jersey, Marcy Kaptur defeated Dennis J. Kucinich in Ohio and Mark Critz defeated Altmire in Pennsylvania (even though Critz later lost the general election). Janice Hahn defeated Laura Richardson in a November race between two Democrats because of California’s top-two primary system.

There were also a handful of general election contests between members of the opposite party. Republican Tom Latham defeated Democrat Leonard Boswell in Iowa and Republican James B. Renacci defeated Democrat Betty Sutton in Ohio.

If history is any sort of guide, there will certainly be incumbents facing off in 2022. The only question is whether there’s an actual fight during the electoral fight.