The Biggest Victim in 2021 Redistricting So Far: Competition

November 23, 2021

Heading into Thanksgiving, new congressional maps have either passed or are awaiting signature in 20 states — almost half of the 44 states with two or more seats. And although Republicans are poised for modest mapping gains, the most dramatic trend is anti-competitive.

So far, Democrats have passed new gerrymanders in Illinois, Nevada and Oregon. Republicans have passed new gerrymanders in Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah (though litigation could upend some of these). Status quo or neutral maps have passed, or are on track to pass, in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska and West Virginia.

The net shift across these 20 states? Republican-leaning seats (those that voted for Donald Trump by at least five points in 2020) are up 14%, from 88 to 100. Democratic-leaning seats (those that voted for President Biden by at least five points) are up 8%, from 60 to 65. But the most competitive seats — those that voted for either Biden or Trump by less than five points — have plummeted a staggering 58%, from 24 to 10.


Net Seat Change in States with Approved (or Nearly Approved) New Maps

 


The biggest driver of this decline is the new GOP map in Texas. Under the current lines, there are 11 seats that voted for Biden or Trump by less than five points, including eight suburban GOP-held seats and three Democratic-held seats in South Texas. Under the new lines, Republicans have safeguarded all of their own seats and left just one competitive seat: Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez's open 15th CD in the Rio Grande Valley.

Republicans have bolstered their own seats elsewhere as well, taking potentially vulnerable seats off the map in Indiana, Oklahoma and Utah. Meanwhile, Democrats have acted to shore up their own vulnerable seats in Illinois, Nevada and Oregon.

In one sense, this is nothing new: redistricting is always a time of retrenchment. Parties don't like uncertainty or having to spend a lot of money cycle after cycle on see-sawing districts when they can predetermine outcomes with an easy-to-use mapping application. But, the never-before-seen extent to which voters are geographically sorted and cast straight-ticket ballots makes today's gerrymanders more powerful than past ones.

It's true that maps can unravel over time. Predictions in 2011 that Democrats would be "locked out" of the House for the entire decade due to aggressive GOP gerrymandering came crashing down in the 2018 blue wave, when suburban seats that were thought to be safely red a decade ago abandoned Trump. Just the same, it's possible to see how GOP-drawn districts in Georgia, Ohio or Texas could fail in a future good cycle for Democrats.

But at least in 2022, the disproportionate number of competitive seats are likely to be in states with commission or court-drawn maps. California, Michigan, New Jersey and Arizona are all large commission states where more competitive seats could take shape.

Overall, competitive seats are on track to decline by as much as a third. The resulting narrow battlefield could make it easier for Republicans to take back the House majority, but could also lower the ceiling of their potential gains because plenty of districts are about to get bluer too. The more dramatic effect: even more competition will shift from general elections to primaries, aiding the prospects of more extreme or confrontational candidates.

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