The U.S. Census Bureau’s recent announcement that Republican “red” states netted six extra Congressional seats was well-needed positive news for a party awash in a steady wave of negative headlines. There was losing the White House and Senate in November, the deadly Jan. 6 D.C. riots, emboldened white nationalism in its ranks, canceling Liz Cheney, and the seemingly quixotic effort to negatively spin President Biden’s largely popular agenda.
But despite this good census news, Republicans are far from guaranteed these seats will alter control of Congress after the 2022 midterms. That’s because re-apportioning House seats involves simple math. Determining which party benefits after Congressional maps are redrawn requires complex calculus that can get murky real quick.
This is because many other demographic and legal dynamics determine which state party ultimately adds an extra Congressional seat or two to their caucus. Consider after the 2010 census, five red states gained eight seats: one each in South Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and Utah, and four in Texas. The reflex is to say red states will convert those seats into gains for their side. But after 2011 redistricting half of these extra new seats went to Democrats netting no change in Congress from those states for Republicans.
Heavily Red Montana
Only in a heavily Republican state can GOP officials feel confident to gain an extra Republican representative. A rare example of this will be Montana, which will go from one at-large seat to two seats. A Republican stronghold, Montana delivered Trump a 20-point victory in 2016 and a 16-point margin in 2020. Also in the 2020 Senate race, Republican Steve Daines beat the rare, popular Democratic governor Steve Bullock by 11 points.
Montana does have an independent Districting and Apportionment Commission that will redraw lines after receiving full, detailed census data by Aug. 16. This reduces the chance of a partisan gerrymander; however, a review of county-level data shows, even if one wanted to, it would be extremely hard to gerrymander a safe Democratic district in Montana.
That’s because Biden won just seven of 56 counties in the state and only two of the six most populous counties (Missoula County and Bozeman’s Gallatin County). Even bunching these two pro-Biden counties together wouldn’t be enough to counter all of the smaller solidly red counties in between and around.
But in highly populous states with a narrow or shrinking Republican majority – even with GOP control of the redistricting – trying to squeeze out an additional Republican seat risks diluting margins in existing Republican held districts and losing one or two.
This is exactly the situation faced in Florida and Texas. In Florida, the state went for Trump by just 3.3 points, but Republicans already control about 60% of the state’s U.S. House seats (16 of 27). In Texas, Republicans control 64% of House seats (23 of 36), but Republican fortunes continue to narrow with Trump’s 2020 winning margin shrinking to 5.6 percentage points, down from 9 points in 2016 and Mitt Romney’s nearly 16-point victory in 2012. Plus there was the horrible winter electrical outages under state Republican control.
Wisdom from Waxman
In a recent interview, former Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman (1975-2015) told me something counterintuitive about partisan gerrymandering. He pointed out that prior to California switching to a nonpartisan citizens redistricting commission after the 2010 census, the Democrats’ main redistricting goal was usually “incumbent protection.” This made some sense because incumbents like Waxman held important seniority and could deliver for the state by flexing their muscles as committee chairs and ranking minority members.
“The State Legislature first would protect all of the Democratic incumbents. But to do that, they needed to protect the Republicans who were their neighbors” by grouping a lot of Republican voters into safe Republican districts, Waxman explained. “One reason why [prior to 2010] there were as many Republicans from California as there were was because the Democrats made seats that were very solid for Republicans.”
But once the citizens redistricting commission created simpler Congressional districts with a greater respect for existing county and municipal boundaries, fewer California incumbents won by double-digit margins. But since California was a heavily Democratic state, a nonpartisan redistricting that didn’t favor incumbents of either party meant more Democrats won more seats overall – though the number of races decided by single digits tripled from 2010 to 2012.
“It meant that the Hispanic vote became so much more significant in these districts, and it meant more Democrats were elected,” recalled Waxman.
The data bears this out. From 1990 to 2010, Republicans held between 18 and 25 seats in the California House delegation. But after the first nonpartisan redistricting, this dropped first to 14 seats in 2012 and then to seven by 2018. Last year, Republicans narrowly won back four of these seats, and the delegation split is currently 42 Democrats to 11 Republicans.
Tangled two-step in Texas
So what will happen in Florida and Texas this time around? The 2012 example when Texas picked up four additional seats doesn’t provide much reason for GOP optimism. After that Republican-controlled redistricting, Democrats picked up three of the four additional seats, and the Texas Republican advantage in its House delegation dropped from +14 to +12.
An interesting district to watch in 2022 will be TX-24 in the Dallas/Denton area currently held by GOP freshman Beth Van Duyne. In 2012 and 2014, Republican Kenny Marchant won there by margins of 25 points, but by 2018 this narrowed to just three points. After he retired, Van Duyne succeeded him with a winning margin of less than a point and a half.
So if the GOP tries to partially carve out a solidly Republican new House district in the Dallas area this could pull critical Republican voters from Van Duyne and net the Republicans nothing. So it’s a difficult tightrope for Texas Republicans, especially given the other demographic trends shifting gradually toward Democrats.
And Van Duyne isn’t the only Texas House Republican straddling or adjacent to Democratic metro areas who could be hurt if their Republican electoral majorities get diluted. These four all won by single digits in 2020: Michael McCauls’ TX-10 between Austin and Houston (7 points), Chip Roy’s TX-21 between Austin and San Antonio (7 points), Troy Nehls’ TX-22 outside Houston (5 points) and Tony Gonzalez’s long TX-23 border district between El Paso and San Antonio won by 4 points.
Big Dem gain from California’s loss?
Now look at the other side of that GOP net-gain coin and consider those Blue states that lost six net seats. The casual observer would presume a net-seat loss would mean a one fewer Democrat in the state delegation and probably lock two incumbent Democrats in a caged death match. But once again, this doesn’t account for the many variables at play.
Take California. It will lose one House seat going from 53 districts to 52. This will mostly affect the Los Angeles and Orange County areas, which featured the lowest population gains in the state. This was 2.2% and 5.5%, respectively, versus a statewide 6.1% average increase. The 21 House members who represent some part of Los Angeles and Orange counties will contract to 20.
This could pit two Democratic incumbents against each other in Los Angeles, but boundary shifts could also put pressure on Republican Mike Garcia who in 2020 won Katie Hill’s former seat in the northwest part of L.A. County by just 333 votes.
Likewise, boundary shifts in the Orange County districts of freshmen Republicans Young Kim and Michelle Steel will certainly enlarge their districts. But will this add more Democratic leaning sections to either district? The citizens redistricting commission will be nonpartisan, but given Kim and Steel won in 2020 by just 1.2 and 2.2 points, respectively, both teams are no doubt sweating what even small map changes will mean to their 2022 fortunes.
This also applies halfway up the state for Republican David Valadao. He lost his Central Valley CA-21 seat in 2018 to Democrat T.J. Cox in a narrow recount in 2018 but then won it back in 2020 by less than a percentage point. Being further away from southern California, the adjustments to his district are expected to be less dramatic, but if more parts of the Democratic-leaning Fresno area are added, this could swing the district back to Cox. (Cox has not officially declared his candidacy but is fundraising in anticipation of a possible rematch.)
These are four Republican held swing districts. By comparison, no incumbent California House Democrat won their districts in 2020 by less than six points. Thus with registered Republicans accounting for just 24% of all voters in the state, there is a stronger chance than not that California Republicans net a one- or two-seat net loss after 2022.
Democratic states elsewhere
The largely Democratic states of New York and Illinois also each lost a Congressional district. Dynamics are slightly different in each state, but New York is the most like California and the pressure will probably be greater on Republicans than Democrats to retain current seats.
In Illinois, the recent retirement announcement of Democratic representative Cheri Bustos of downstate Moline might have sparked dreams of a GOP gain there. But Democrats control that redistricting map. One can imagine them emphasizing incumbent protection in the Greater Chicagoland area, where Democrats dominate, and make sure at least one of the downstate districts have a Democratic voter majority.
After all, most of the state’s population loss occurred downstate, where Republicans control 6 of the 7 districts. So it’s plausible the Democrats blow up Bustos’s current district and instead combine the four Democratic counties of Rock Island, Peoria, Champaign and McLean to try to retain at least one downstate seat. This would then leave the Republicans with one less House seat in the state.
Of course, political elections never perfectly follow mathematical constructs. So much comes down to the candidates nominated, turnout, local and national issues, and the ever possible game-changing unforced error or scandal.
This all goes to underscore just how surface-level was that good census news for Republicans. Time will ultimately tell how this all plays out, and control of the House could come down to those pesky northern swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio – all of which lost a seat each.