The surprising good news for Democrats: on the current trajectory, there will be a few more Biden-won districts after redistricting than there are now — producing a congressional map slightly less biased in the GOP's favor than the last decade's. The bad news for Democrats: if President Biden's approval ratings are still mired in the low-to-mid 40s in November, that won't be enough to save their razor-thin House majority (currently 221 to 212 seats).
The start of 2022 is an ideal time to take stock of the nation's cartographic makeover. New district lines are either complete or are awaiting certification in 34 states totaling 293 seats — more than two-thirds of the House (this includes the six states with only one seat).
A Cook Political Report with Amy Walter analysis finds that in the completed states, Biden would have carried 161 of 293 districts over Donald Trump in 2020, an uptick from 157 of 292 districts in those states under the current lines (nationwide, Biden carried 224 of 435 seats). And if Democrats were to aggressively gerrymander New York or courts strike down GOP-drawn maps in North Carolina and/or Ohio, the outlook would get even better for Democrats.
However, the partisan distribution of seats before/after redistricting is only one way to gauge the process. Because Democrats currently possess the lion's share of marginal seats, estimating the practical effect of new lines in 2022 still points towards a wash or a slight GOP gain.
As we've written all cycle, redistricting was never going to be the GOP bonanza depicted in some sky-is-falling narratives on the left. Yes, Republicans wield the authority to redraw 187 seats compared to 75 for Democrats. But that's less lopsided than in 2011, when Republicans had nearly a five-to-one advantage. And many GOP-controlled states are already gerrymandered, limiting Republicans' ability to wring them for additional gains.
In Texas, Republican mapmakers' main objective was to shore up their own vulnerable incumbents, not seize a lot more Democratic seats. Republicans passed on going nuclear in Indiana and Iowa, and for parochial reasons appear unlikely to dismantle remaining Democratic seats in Kansas, Kentucky and Missouri. In fact, so far Republicans have only gone on offense in Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio — all of which face court scrutiny.
Meanwhile, Democrats unabashedly gerrymandered Illinois, New Mexico and Oregon. They scored highly favorable maps from commissions in California and New Jersey, and to a lesser extent Michigan. Republicans' only mild commission "wins?" Arizona and Montana. And five states where the GOP had exclusive authority back in 2011 — Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin — are now under split or commission control.
Perhaps the most useful metric of district-level partisanship is the Cook Political Report's PVI (Partisan Voter Index), which measures each district's performance in the last two presidential elections relative to the nation as a whole.
Even though Biden carried 224 of 435 seats in 2020, the current House map has a slight pro-GOP bias: the median district, held by Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood (IL-14), voted for Biden by 2.4 points, two points to the right of his 4.4 point national popular vote margin. Nationally, according to the PVI, there are 230 districts that lean more Republican than the nation as a whole, compared to 205 districts that lean more Democratic.
So far, completed states look surprisingly rosy for Democrats. There are 15 seats that have "flipped" from GOP-leaning to Democratic-leaning: CA-13, CA-45, GA-07, IL-13, IL-14, IL-17, MI-03, MI-11, NV-03, NJ-03, NJ-05, NJ-11, NM-02, OR-04 and VA-07. By contrast, there are only nine seats that have "flipped" the other way: AZ-06, CA-40, GA-06, MI-08, MI-10, NJ-07, NC-02, NC-07 and OH-09. That's a net gain of six Democratic-leaning seats.
However, the oldest rule in the book is that you can't gain a seat you already hold. Looking under the hood, Democrats already hold 11 of the 15 "newly Democratic-leaning" seats, meaning only four are pickup opportunities. By contrast, Republicans only hold one of the nine "newly GOP-leaning" seats, giving them eight map-enhanced pickup opportunities - twice as many as Democrats. At least in 2022, that's a GOP advantage.
New Jersey's new map is a perfect illustration: three seats move from GOP-leaning to Democratic-leaning (the 3rd, 5th and 11th CDs) versus one seat that "flips" from a PVI of D+1 to R+2 (Rep. Tom Malinowski's 7th CD). In the long term, that's probably a great trade for Democrats. But Democrats currently hold all four of those seats, so the likeliest 2022 outcome is a 9D-3R split, a loss of one for Democrats versus 10D-2R today.
Virginia is another good example. Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger's 7th CD moves from R+3 to D+1, improving her chances of winning reelection. But the newly Democratic-leaning seat would be a hold for her party, not a gain. By contrast, Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria's 2nd CD gets redder, moving from R+1 to R+3. The seat already leaned slightly GOP, but now Republicans have an even better chance of winning it in November.
Also worth factoring in: the states that gained or lost seats in the Census are, so far, more or less canceling each other out. The six newly created districts lean GOP 4-2 - not much different from the five eliminated seats, which lean GOP 3-2.
It's still too early to render a final verdict on redistricting. There are still 16 states that aren't complete (or near-complete), not counting the handful of states with high-stakes litigation pending. Republicans could still target Democratic seats in Florida, Tennessee and New Hampshire, and far less likely in Kansas, Kentucky and Missouri. Democrats could offset all of that in New York. Here are the three biggest remaining variables to watch:
In the past week, the Ohio Supreme Court and a North Carolina trial court held oral arguments in cases brought by Democratic-backed plaintiffs against GOP-drawn maps. In both states, there's good reason to believe the state's top justices will strike down hyper-Republican maps on state constitutional grounds, with control of 2-3 seats at stake in each.
In North Carolina, Republicans passed a map that would result in a 10R-4D or possibly even 11R-3D split, up from 8R-5D today. But Democrats hold a 4-3 majority on the state's top court, at least until this fall's judicial elections. Just as North Carolina courts struck down a previous GOP gerrymander in 2019, the court (which has already delayed the 2022 primary) could order the legislature to revisit the lines, or take over the process altogether.
In Ohio, Republicans' enacted map could result in a 13R-2D split in 2022, even more lopsided than the current 12R-4D split. But the state's new voter-passed anti-gerrymandering law says maps must not "unduly favor or disfavor a party or incumbents." Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, regarded as the court's swing vote, has previously taken issue with GOP redistricting plans. A remedy is murky, but could cede Democrats two or three more seats.
Theoretically, Florida is Republicans' biggest redistricting weapon in the country, and the process will start in earnest when the legislature convenes next week. The Florida Supreme Court, charged with enforcing the state's "Fair Districts" anti-gerrymandering law, has taken a hard right turn in the last few years. Still, there is some internal GOP disagreement in Tallahassee.
The most aggressive draft published by Florida House Republicans could give the GOP a 19R-9D advantage, up from 16R-11D today, though several seats would still be competitive. Other drafts published by Senate Republicans appear to pay more deference to the "Fair Districts" law and might top out at 17R-11D or 18R-10D. Likewise, Republicans in Missouri, New Hampshire and Tennessee appear to be debating how magnanimous (or not) to be.
Believe it or not, this is the first time since the early 20th century that Democrats have held unified control of Albany in a redistricting year. And, that could turn into a windfall for the party: if the state's new commission deadlocks, as expected, Democratic legislators could pass a map that imperils up to five GOP seats, carving the current 19D-8R map into a 23D-3R domination.
However, the quiet failure of a Democratic-backed constitutional amendment last November means Democrats' two-thirds majorities will have an exceedingly tight timeline (starting in mid-February) and almost no room for defections to pass the gerrymanders of their dreams. If incumbents refuse to cede turf or enough legislators balk, courts could take over, forfeiting the party's chance to seize up to four additional seats in the Empire State.
House Democrats' math problem boils down to this: even though there will be more Biden-won seats than there are now, dozens will have only voted for him by narrow margins and will be very tenuous for Democrats if Biden's approval rating is still languishing below 45 percent.
In 2018, Democrats didn't flip a single GOP seat that had given President Trump more than 55 percent of the vote in 2016. But they still managed to gain 40 seats because Trump's approval rating was at 42 percent. Today, there are 48 House Democrats sitting in seats where Biden took less than 55 percent in 2020, and that number is likely to remain in a similar range after redistricting. Republicans only need to gain five seats for the majority.
Take Democrats' defensive gerrymander of Nevada, which split up Las Vegas to maximize Democrats' chances of keeping three of the state's four seats. It features three Las Vegas area seats where Biden took between 52 and 54 percent of the vote. But in a "red wave," it could backfire into giving the GOP more pickup opportunities. So far, there are two dozen seats in completed states where Biden took less than 54 percent of the vote.
Some of the narrowly Biden-won new seats where Democrats are especially vulnerable are AZ-06, IL-17, MI-07, MI-08, NV-01, NV-03, NV-04, NJ-07, NC-02, VA-02, VA-07 and WA-08. And, this list is certain to expand as more states finish maps.
Adding to Democrats' challenge: retirements. At this writing, there are 24 Democrats not seeking reelection in 2022, including 11 from potentially vulnerable districts. The retirements of Reps. Stephanie Murphy (FL-07), Cheri Bustos (IL-17), G.K. Butterfield (NC-02) and Ron Kind (WI-03) are the most problematic. By contrast, there are only 11 Republicans heading for the exits, none of whom were truly vulnerable under their current lines.
On the GOP side, candidate recruitment has been red hot. Of the 26 Republicans who lost 2020 House races by six points or less, 13 are running again and most have bigger financial head starts, including Esther Joy King (IL-17), Tyler Kistner (MN-02), Tom Kean (NJ-07), Lisa Scheller (PA-07) and Derrick Van Orden (WI-03). By contrast, only two of the 24 Democrats who lost by six points or less are running again: Christy Smith (CA-27) and Max Rose (NY-11).
Republicans are also putting their successful 2020 strategy of fielding more women and minorities in hyper-drive in 2022. Top GOP candidates who defy the party's stereotype include Juan Ciscomani (AZ-06), Lori Saine and Barbara Kirkmeyer (CO-08), Ana Paulina Luna (FL-13), Theresa Gavarone and Madison Gesiotto Gilbert (OH-09), Monica De La Cruz Hernandez (TX-15), Jen Kiggans (VA-02), Wesley Hunt (TX-38) and possibly John James (MI-10).
Democratic recruitment has been notably slower — the DCCC hasn't yet rolled out its typical "Red to Blue" list. But there are a few bright spots, including Rudy Salas (CA-22), Yadira Caraveo and Chaz Tedesco (CO-08) and Nikki Budzinski (IL-13).
One distraction for House Republicans: primaries pitting MAGA forces against pre-Trump traditionalists. Although impeachment "Ayes" like Reps. Liz Cheney (WY-AL) and Tom Rice (SC-07) are in the most obvious trouble, member-on-member primaries between Reps. Rodney Davis and Mary Miller (IL-15), David McKinley and Alex Mooney (WV-02) and possibly Fred Upton and Bill Huizenga (MI-04) threaten the GOP conference's unity in 2022.
Democrats have modestly outpaced redistricting expectations, and the next decade's House map is on pace to be slightly less biased towards the GOP than the last one's. But the new maps carry as much short-term risk as long-term upside.
Democrats began the cycle with virtually no margin for error, and the drag from Biden's disapproval - inextricably linked to retirements and GOP recruitment/fundraising — long ago overtook redistricting as the leading threat to Democrats' majority. Their only hope of holding on involves not only key map battles in New York, North Carolina and Ohio breaking their way but the president's approval rating rebounding much closer to 50 percent.
The far more dramatic effect of 2022 redistricting: a rise in the number of hyper-partisan seats at the expense of competitive ones. So far in completed states, the number of single-digit Biden and Trump seats has declined from 62 to 46 (a 26 percent drop). That means a House even less responsive to shifts in public opinion, with more ideological "cul-de-sac" districts where candidates' only electoral incentive is to play to a primary base.
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