Looking at the Big Picture in the House


Because one Crystal Ball analysis piece (We Were Merely Freshmen?) laced with references to popular music deserves another, we decided to take our readers back in time this week and tip our hat to an old blues song Led Zeppelin revived in 1971. The first lines should be familiar to many a Robert Plant die-hard in our readership:

“If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break

When the levee breaks, I’ll have no place to stay”

Certainly, Nancy Pelosi and company had much happier tunes in their heads when they wrested leadership gavels from across the aisle earlier this year. But when the floodgates opened to new majority-making Democratic legislators following the wave of 2006, you can be sure many Republicans left without places to stay were singing the blues. Dazed and confused members of the GOP had never imagined such a powerful storm would wash them out to sea, given all of the structural advantages the party had enjoyed at the outset of 2005.

Our friends and fellow prognosticators Charlie Cook and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report said it well just over a year before last November’s midterm elections: “To use an analogy that we are now, unfortunately, all too familiar with,” wrote Cook for the National Journal, “we can look at the structure that Republicans have built to protect their majority like a levee.” Questioning the extent to which Democrats had potential to overcome obstacles to putting a wider array of House races in play, they listed the 2000 round of redistricting–in which many GOP districts had been shored up for the party’s incumbents by state legislators–among the primary impediments to Democrats’ competitiveness.

By now, it’s obvious to everyone that the GOP’s levee broke in 2006 and that all the structural protections Republicans had built over the course of their twelve year reign were not quite enough to stave off a high Democratic tide in a severe year. But what’s intriguing about the latest turn of events is its sense of déjà vu–with regard to the dramatic failure of built-in party advantages, it’s almost as if we saw last decade’s story in the House played out all over again, with partisan roles reversed. Now, at the halfway mark between the previous and next rounds of congressional reapportionment and redistricting, we have reached an ideal point to take stock of the trends we have witnessed.

Following the release of 1990 decennial census data, Democrats held not only a sizeable edge in the House (267-167) but also a substantial advantage in the decade’s critical round of line redrawing. In states bearing congressional redistricting responsibility in 1991-2, Democrats held majorities in nearly four fifths of state legislative bodies and a 25-17 edge among governors with veto power over redistricting plans. In most states, this lopsidedness left Republicans almost completely left out of this influential enterprise, and ruling Democrats imposed creative (and sometimes grotesque) boundaries to preserve power throughout the decade as best they could while complying with Voting Rights Act requirements.

The Democrats’ plans worked fleetingly, as the party mostly preserved its mammoth majority in the 1992 presidential election. But just two years later, their dam broke in dramatic fashion as the insurgent GOP class of 1994 toppled incumbents and nabbed open seats in states where the Democrats thought their political maps would ensure their security. In some states such as Georgia, Democrats’ districting schemes had clearly even backfired; legislative leaders had spread the party’s supporters too thin across the state in hopes of preserving a maximum of incumbent Democratic seats, and nearly all fell to the GOP, awarding incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich many new home-state allies.

Fast-forward to the period following the release of 2000 decennial census data, and it’s easy to see that the tables were turned. Republicans held not only a slight majority of seats in the House, but the lion’s share of authority in the state legislative line-drawing process. In 2001-2, the GOP held exclusive control of redistricting in ten states accounting for 132 House seats, while Democrats held exclusive control in eight states accounting for 103 House seats. What’s more, Republicans took advantage of their new cartographic dominance to significantly alter lines to their liking in large states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and eventually the big prize, Texas.

The GOP’s firewall was designed to last the decade, and it worked well in the short-term, as the party padded its margins somewhat in 2002 and 2004. But the wall simply could not withstand the strong pro-Democratic political environment of the 2006 midterms, and whether or not the GOP’s choices of where to draw the lines were shortsighted, many of the party’s incumbents once thought safe ended up blindsided by devastating losses. In fact, of the 30 House districts that switched from GOP to Democratic control in 2006, 18 had been redrawn to improve Republican performance in the post-2000 redistricting cycle. Once again, plenty of deliberate efforts to entrench majority incumbents ultimately proved futile.

Perhaps the state where GOP-led 2001 redistricting efforts most obviously blew up in the party’s face was Pennsylvania. Enterprising Republican line drawers dealt with the Keystone State’s loss of two seats by merging the urban districts of Democratic incumbents in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and pairing another Democratic representative with a senior incumbent of the opposite party in a hostile district. In 2002, Republicans unexpectedly lost the incumbent-vs.-incumbent race after their standard-bearer proved rusty after years of breezing to reelection, and in 2006, the bottom fell out. Surging Democratic strength in suburban districts helped Democrats achieve a net four seat gain in Pennsylvania’s House delegation, turning what was intended to be a 13-6 GOP advantage in 2003 into an 11-8 Democratic advantage in 2007.

The mirror images of these redistricting outcomes should not necessarily leave us with the impression that the power to redistrict is a curse. It’s possible that the pendulum of control could have swung even farther in 1994 or 2006 had incumbent parties not had opportunities to safeguard their districts, though we will never know for sure. It’s also true that many plans have reaped their masterminds lasting political rewards. But more often than not, districting choices hold at least a few unintended consequences. Parties striving for control of governor’s mansions and state legislatures in hopes of mapping their own political futures beyond 2010 should learn valuable lessons from the examples of the last two decades: be careful what you wish for, and exercise your power with utmost caution.

If anything, the dual failures of Democrats and Republicans to entrench their majorities through redistricting offer an uplifting commentary on the state of our representative democracy. Unilaterally controlled redistricting is often decried as a tool for power to beget more power, but the last two electoral “waves” teach us that whenever voters are in a sufficiently stormy mood, all bets are off and the levee can still break. The continued presence of such potential for change, unfettered by the very structure of our politics, is a sure sign of democratic health. In the redistricting battle of evermore, we bet each party will see its share of good times and bad times. And for that, the Crystal Ball is grateful.

Lest we ramble on further, we wish to present you with a chart that may be more of a long-term cause for concern for House Democrats than any simple redistricting calculations: House reapportionment projections. Based on Census projections for populations of states through 2030, we have calculated the number of seats in Congress each state will be slated to gain or lose if projections hold, and by 2030, 34 states are slated to exchange a grand total of 35 seats. Democrats beware: population losses in congressional party strongholds such as the Northeast and surges in weak spots such as Florida and Texas could single-handedly erode your existing House majority in the coming decades! The GOP minority can take heart that they may gain seats thanks to population shifts before districts are even redrawn every ten years.

NOTE: Reapportionment projections below assume that both a) Louisiana will lose a seat in Congress in 2010 due to post-Hurricane Katrina population losses not yet reflected in official Census projections and b) the size of the House will be permanently expanded to 437 following passage of a bill to grant the District of Columbia congressional voting rights.

Crystal Ball Future Reapportionment Projections

State Current Seats 2010 Projections 2020 Projections 2030 Projections
Alabama 7 7 6 6
Alaska 1 1 1 1
Arizona 8 9 11 13
Arkansas 4 4 4 4
California 53 54 54 56
Colorado 7 7 7 7
Connecticut 5 5 5 4
Delaware 1 1 1 1
District of Columbia 1 1 1
Florida 25 27 30 34
Georgia 13 14 14 14
Hawaii 2 2 2 2
Idaho 2 2 2 2
Illinois 19 18 17 16
Indiana 9 9 9 8
Iowa 5 4 4 4
Kansas 4 4 4 4
Kentucky 6 6 6 5
Louisiana 7 6 6 6
Maine 2 2 2 2
Maryland 8 8 8 8
Massachusetts 10 9 9 8
Michigan 15 15 14 13
Minnesota 8 8 8 8
Mississippi 4 4 4 4
Missouri 9 8 8 8
Montana 1 1 1 1
Nebraska 3 3 2 2
Nevada 3 4 4 5
New Hampshire 2 2 2 2
New Jersey 13 13 12 12
New Mexico 3 3 3 3
New York 29 28 25 23
North Carolina 13 13 14 15
North Dakota 1 1 1 1
Ohio 18 16 15 14
Oklahoma 5 5 5 5
Oregon 5 5 6 6
Pennsylvania 19 18 17 15
Rhode Island 2 2 2 1
South Carolina 6 6 6 6
South Dakota 1 1 1 1
Tennessee 9 9 9 9
Texas 32 35 37 40
Utah 3 4 4 4
Vermont 1 1 1 1
Virginia 11 11 12 12
Washington 9 9 10 10
West Virginia 3 3 2 2
Wisconsin 8 8 8 7
Wyoming 1 1 1 1

Sources: Official U.S. Census Bureau Projections and U.Va. Center for Politics Calculations

Special thanks to Crystal Ball interns Clare Seekins, Anne Harris, James Noel, Bayless Sword and Michael Rocks for their research assistance that contributed to this report.