It is conventional wisdom these days that congressional district lines in most places are drawn to protect incumbents of both parties. But if that is the case, the cartographers in many states last time out did not do a very good job. More House incumbents were beaten under the current lines than in any other period since the 1970s. And for good measure, more House incumbents were defeated in the 2010 election (54) than in any other general election since 1948. The chart below compares the number of defeated House incumbents by decade. Post-redistricting elections that end with a “2″ are not included, since incumbents then can often find themselves pitted against each other. Totals are restricted to the four general elections that follow, when the district lines traditionally undergo little or no change.
The current redistricting process is different from the last one in a variety of ways. Republican gubernatorial and state legislative gains last fall put the GOP in a much stronger position in many states to push through maps of their choosing.
On the other hand, for the first time in more than four decades, the federal Justice Department is in the hands of the Democrats at redistricting time. That puts them in position to review redistricting plans from states required to seek federal approval under the Voting Rights Act, many of which are in the South where Republicans hold sway.
And then there is the voter-approved commission in California empowered to draw more competitive congressional districts, as well as a voter-approved constitutional amendment in Florida that declares that districts “may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.”
Yet no matter which mode of redistricting is employed, the handiwork of the cartographers will continue to be challenged over the next decade by changing demographics, the ups and downs of the economy and an ever-evolving political environment. In short, safe congressional seats will always be with us, but probably not as many as their most ambitious creators would want.
In California and Florida, two states new to nonpartisan redistricting, the uncertainty factor should be a major concern. The process in both states isn’t expected to lead to major changes in the partisan makeup of each delegation, but party officials in Washington are making sure that incumbents get a clear message: Just because a district stays in one party’s hands doesn’t mean it will be represented by the same member.
“We’re telling our delegations that they don’t draw the maps,” said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., who is the redistricting point man for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“We would like to think that every member could come in and draw a perfect district for them. The one thing that we know for sure [is], unless you live in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, or Montana, you’re going to have a different district,” Westmoreland said.
Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting commission threw an early wrench into the state’s redistricting process Thursday, proposing a map that would put Republican Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King into the same district, while also drawing Democratic Reps. Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack into the same district.
The state is dropping from five districts to four districts due to slower-than-average population growth over the last decade, meaning that it was a foregone conclusion that two incumbents would be drawn into the same district.
But instead of making minor changes, the proposal is a wholesale re-drawing of the congressional map and pairs up two sets of incumbents, while leaving Rep. Leonard Boswell (D) in his own district and creating an open seat in the southeastern corner of the state – where the potential candidates include former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack (D).
This map is not the final plan, however, as the state legislature and governor have to sign off on it first. Republicans, in particular, might bristle at the idea that Latham and King would be in the same district. Latham moved to his current home in Ames in 2001 to avoid just such a scenario.