A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The Brennan Center: After redistricting, here’s how each party would win the House

By Michael Li and Chris Leaverton
The Brennan Center for Justice

If victory in congres­sional redis­trict­ing is defined as guar­an­tee­ing control of the House, the latest cycle could be considered some­thing of a draw. Under new congres­sional maps, both Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans have viable paths to a House major­ity in coming years, though this is in large meas­ure due to fairer maps drawn by commis­sions or courts rather than line draw­ing in states where politi­cians controlled the pen.

To be sure, Demo­crats are still likely to lose their House major­ity in 2022 given this year’s unfor­giv­ing midterm dynam­ics. But if they do, new maps at least give them some reas­on­able paths to winning it back in future cycles. Like­wise, if Repub­lic­ans do take back the House in 2022, they may well find their new major­ity uncom­fort­ably tenu­ous.

However, an import­ant caveat: While neither party is perman­ently locked out of being able to win a House major­ity, that does­n’t mean the new maps are fair. On balance, partisan gerry­man­der­ing contin­ues to skew maps in favor of Repub­lic­ans, making the path to a major­ity harder for Demo­crats than it would be other­wise. This gerry­man­der­ing, moreover, largely comes at the expense of communit­ies of color, espe­cially in the South.

And line-draw­ing may not yet be over for this cycle. In an age of highly polar­ized polit­ics where having control of Congress can feel exist­en­tial, a number of states may decide to redraw maps mid-decade if gerry­manders need shor­ing up or changes to the judi­ciary or law remove a key watch­dog.

The Repub­lican path

For Repub­lic­ans, the road to a House major­ity starts with their contin­ued domin­ance in the seat-rich South, the coun­try’s most popu­lous and fast­est-grow­ing region. Since the south­ern realign­ment of the 1990s and early 2000s, the South has become a crit­ical anchor for the GOP’s hunt for a House major­ity. Before the south­ern realign­ment, Repub­lic­ans had been held to under 200 seats in every House elec­tion after 1956.

At the begin­ning of this cycle, Repub­lic­ans had firm control of redis­trict­ing in all of the South except Virginia, where a new bipar­tisan process would be used, and Louisi­ana, where Repub­lic­ans were just shy of a veto-proof legis­lat­ive major­ity. As in past cycles, they used that power aggress­ively to increase their advant­ages in the region. By further skew­ing maps in large states like Texas, Geor­gia, and Flor­ida, Repub­lic­ans were able to create an addi­tional seven Repub­lican-lean­ing districts and are now favored to win a whop­ping 70 percent of the region’s 155 seats, up from an already command­ing 66 percent before maps were redrawn. In no other region of the coun­try are Repub­lic­ans favored to win as many — or as large a percent­age of — seats. But it could have been even worse for Demo­crats: if state courts in North Caro­lina hadn’t ordered a redraw of a wildly gerry­mandered congres­sional map, Repub­lican domin­ance of the region would have been even more complete.

Source: Brennan Center analysis based on Voting and Election Science Team (VEST) data, Harvard Dataverse.

All told, factor­ing in the six Demo­cratic-lean­ing swing districts in the region, new maps in the South give Repub­lic­ans the poten­tial to win up to 114 seats, just over half the number needed for a major­ity. Most of these districts, moreover, are not just Repub­lican, but solidly so because of a concer­ted Repub­lican strategy to elim­in­ate compet­it­ive districts. After redis­trict­ing, fewer than 1 in 10 Trump districts in the South is compet­it­ive, a far lower percent­age than most of the nation.

The next most import­ant region for Repub­lic­ans is the Midw­est and Great Plains, where they controlled the map-draw­ing pen in 6 of the region’s 12 states. Repub­lic­ans also benefited in a seventh state — Wiscon­sin — when the state supreme court drew maps after a legis­lat­ive dead­lock but largely left in place last decade’s pro-Repub­lican gerry­mander, reas­on­ing that any court-drawn map should limit changes. (Another two heav­ily Repub­lican states, North Dakota and South Dakota, have only a single congres­sional district and did not redis­trict.)

Alto­gether, redis­trict­ing in the Midw­est and Great Plains resul­ted in 62 districts that Repub­lic­ans have a chance to win, includ­ing 43 safe districts. However, new maps in the Midw­est and Great Plains are not quite as favor­able for Repub­lic­ans as old ones. Due to fairer redis­trict­ing in Michigan under the state’s new inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sion, as well as an aggress­ive Demo­cratic gerry­mander in Illinois, the number of Trump districts in the region fell by six, largely offset­ting GOP gains in the South.

In the rest of the coun­try, Repub­lic­ans had little control over redis­trict­ing, making it harder for the party to engin­eer sure paths to a major­ity.

In the Moun­tain states, the coun­try’s least popu­lous region, maps in all but one state were drawn either by commis­sions or under Demo­cratic control. (The one excep­tion was Utah, where Repub­lic­ans drew a gerry­mandered map. In addi­tion, heav­ily Repub­lican Wyom­ing has only a single seat.) Maps in the region give Repub­lic­ans a chance to win between 17 and 22 seats, depend­ing on elec­tion dynam­ics. But in the end, Repub­lic­ans saw no net increase in seats from the region — though it remains to be seen whether a risky Demo­cratic effort to maxim­ize seats in Nevada could back­fire to the bene­fit of Repub­lic­ans in a future elec­tion cycle.

Like­wise, in the heav­ily popu­lated and heav­ily Demo­cratic North­east and Pacific West, Repub­lic­ans did not control line draw­ing in a single state. While new maps in the two regions give Repub­lic­ans the poten­tial to win between 20 and 40 seats in total, only 20 are safe seats that Repub­lic­ans can count on if the elec­tion envir­on­ment were to shift to being strongly pro-Demo­cratic.

However, Repub­lic­ans did score one signi­fic­ant victory in the North­east when state courts in New York struck down the gerry­mandered congres­sional map passed by Demo­crats, order­ing it replaced with a more evenly balanced one drawn by a special master. The effect was to make three Demo­cratic districts compet­it­ive, whereas the original map had none. Indeed, if Repub­lic­ans have a path to a major­ity, they can thank courts and commis­sions that drew two-thirds of all compet­it­ive Biden districts nation­wide and 9 of 11 of the most compet­it­ive. Without these districts, the Repub­lican path to a major­ity would be consid­er­ably more diffi­cult.

In the end, redis­trict­ing provided a reas­on­able but complic­ated path to a GOP House major­ity. To win it, Repub­lic­ans must hold all 208 districts in new maps that Donald Trump would have won in the last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion plus at least some of the 30 districts that Joe Biden narrowly carried that year. That likely will not be hard in 2022 given strongly pro-Repub­lican midterm dynam­ics, but it could prove quite a bit more chal­len­ging in future cycles if the expec­ted swing toward Repub­lic­ans in 2022 in Biden districts is only a cyclical blip rather than a longer-term realign­ment.

The Demo­cratic path

Demo­crats have a very differ­ent path to a major­ity — one that is in some ways easier and in some ways harder than that of Repub­lic­ans.

On the posit­ive side from the perspect­ive of Demo­crats, they start the hunt for a House major­ity with consid­er­ably more safe seats than Repub­lic­ans. While new maps contain 178 districts that Trump won in 2020 by eight or more points (a rough proxy for a safe seat), they contain 197 districts that Biden won by that margin — just 21 seats shy of a House major­ity.

These safe districts are concen­trated in the North­east and Pacific West, two heav­ily Demo­cratic regions where now 116 of the 127 Demo­cratic-lean­ing districts are strongly Biden districts. But Demo­crats also emerged from the redis­trict­ing cycle with 41 strongly Biden seats in the South as well as 40 else­where in the coun­try. This large block of solid Biden seats gives Demo­crats a signi­fic­ant anchor for their efforts to win the House barring a complete elect­oral melt­down or large, unex­pec­ted voter realign­ments.

But Demo­crats saw efforts to build a secure path to a major­ity stymied when state courts struck down Demo­cratic gerry­manders in New York and Mary­land and ordered them with­drawn. Conversely, Demo­crats also lost oppor­tun­it­ies, at least for this elec­tion cycle, as a result of a state court decision in Ohio allow­ing a pro-GOP gerry­mander to remain in place for the 2022 midterms. Like­wise, federal courts put a pause on Voting Rights Act litig­a­tion in Alabama, Louisi­ana, and Geor­gia that could have resul­ted in the creation of three addi­tional Black oppor­tun­ity districts that likely would have seen the elec­tion of Demo­crats.

Source: Brennan Center analysis based on Voting and Election Science Team (VEST) data, Harvard Dataverse.

Still, maps give Demo­crats multiple roads to a House major­ity this decade. The most straight­for­ward one lies in the 30 districts in new maps that Biden carried by less than eight percent­age points in 2020. If Demo­crats won all or most of these districts (not out of the ques­tion in a good Demo­cratic elec­tion cycle), they would end up with roughly the same number of seats they hold in the current House without need­ing to capture a single Trump district. Altern­at­ively, Demo­crats could build a path­way to a major­ity — or even an expan­ded major­ity — by captur­ing some share of the 30 districts that Trump won by less than eight percent­age points in 2020.

But if on paper Demo­crats seem to have more routes than Repub­lic­ans to a major­ity, there are just as many chal­lenges. Demo­crats’ biggest risk is that many of the compet­it­ive Biden districts are not just compet­it­ive but highly compet­it­ive. Indeed, of the 30 narrowly Biden districts, his median margin of victory was a slim 4.7 percent­age points. With even relat­ively modest coali­tional shifts, many of these seats could easily slip out of Demo­crats’ reach — and not just in Repub­lican wave years. If, for example, Latino or white suburban voters were to drift toward Repub­lic­ans on a long-term basis, many of these districts could become hard for Demo­crats to win. And though it is far too early to draw defin­ite conclu­sions about long-term trends, there are already some poten­tially worry­ing signals for Demo­crats of just such possible coali­tional shifts, partic­u­larly among Lati­nos.

In sum, the good news for Demo­crats is that they can secure a House major­ity simply by winning the 227 districts in new maps that Biden carried in 2020. And even if they lose some of those districts, they have an altern­at­ive path to a major­ity in the 30 newly configured districts that Trump won by relat­ively narrow margins in that elec­tion, many of which are in suburbs that have been stead­ily trend­ing toward the party. But while Demo­crats poten­tially have more paths to a major­ity, they have little room for error. It would take only a small shift to put many districts that Biden narrowly won out of reach for House Demo­crats. Conversely, because compet­it­ive Trump districts are at the edge of being noncom­pet­it­ive, they would need a much greater shift to put them in play.

• • •

In the end, this decade’s maps are not nearly as fair or compet­it­ive as they could be. But at the same time, thanks largely to commis­sions and courts, neither party has a decis­ive long-term advant­age in the battle for control of the House. That, at some level, is a small if not completely satis­fact­ory victory for demo­cracy.

The Bren­nan Center for Justice is an inde­pend­ent, nonpar­tisan law and policy organ­iz­a­tion that works to reform, revital­ize, and when neces­sary, defend our coun­try’s systems of demo­cracy and justice.  The Center works with the NYU law school faculty and students to uphold the American ideals of democracy and equal justice, for all. The Center has a presence in both Washington D.C. and New York City.

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