Ga. House members could be on hot seat in Congressional redistricting

By: and - May 4, 2021 3:00 am

Reps Lucy McBath, left, and Carolyn Bourdeaux, will be likely targets of political redistricting as Republicans aim to take back the U.S. House. Ross Williams and Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Georgia is likely one of the states Republicans will be banking on to win back the U.S. House in 2022, according to an initial analysis of U.S. Census data released last week, and this year’s redrawing of Congressional lines could be the key.

The findings suggest a boost for Republicans nationwide, albeit a small one.

Had the 2020 presidential election been held under the new allocation of congressional seats, President Joe Biden would have won the White House with 303, rather than 306, electoral votes, according to David Wasserman, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

States key to Biden’s victory, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, are set to lose congressional districts, while Colorado, which also backed Biden, will pick up another seat.

Georgia’s population growth outpaced the national average, but not by enough to add a 15th Congressional seat. Still, Republican state lawmakers who will oversee the map-making will have an opportunity to draw at least a couple of congressional districts in their party’s favor.

Texas, Florida and North Carolina, which voted for former President Donald Trump, are set to gain a collective four seats. Ohio, which also favored Trump, will lose a seat.

In Georgia, the Legislature is responsible for redrawing district lines, and Republicans are in control. The districts to watch in Georgia belong to Rep. Lucy McBath and Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, two Atlanta-area Democrats who have found success in recently-red areas. Republican state lawmakers could carve up the map to pit them against each other.

When it comes to congressional math, the early accounting also is better for the GOP, though there’s a high degree of uncertainty on the scale of that impact. Wasserman’s analysis projects Republicans could pick up three to four seats solely from the ripple effects of the reapportionment process.

That’s not much, but Democrats currently have just two votes more than the 216 needed to pass bills in that chamber.  Another Democrat, Troy Carter, won a Louisiana special election on Saturday, and when he is sworn in that will bring the party split to 219-212 with four vacant seats.

Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, also projected that Republicans could see most of the gains under the new lines.

Republican officials will control the map-drawing process in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina, and will be favored to gain in Montana and Oregon as well, for an edge in six of the seven new seats being drawn, he said.

“On balance, Republicans should benefit from these changes — not necessarily by doing better in the states losing seats, but rather by potentially picking up the lion’s share of the new seats in the states gaining districts,” Kondik wrote.

Democrats are likely to fight back, but how much power they have will depend on what state they are from, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

In Florida, for example, voters in 2010 approved a constitutional amendment to prevent legislators from drawing lines to protect political parties or incumbents.

“What we saw in the last decade was the Republicans who drew the districts 10 years ago, got hauled into court least twice and had to redo it, so that gives Democrats there some protection, more so than in most other states.”

The North Carolina Supreme Court has also thrown out boundaries they determined to be unlawful racial gerrymanders, so Democrats may have a legal recourse there, too, Bullock said.

Lawsuits are likely across the country, but they will be complicated by the pandemic, which caused delays for the census and the reporting of the data from it.

“These districts are going to be drawn, in Georgia and probably in other places, in very late fall or even early winter,” Bullock said. “So that means less time to litigate. Texas holds its primaries early in the year, in February. So they’re going to have to whip out maps, and then almost immediately after they get the maps, I suspect it’s going to be filing time to run in those districts.”

Who controls the maps?

A critical factor is which party gets to draw the lines in each state. Democrats have the final authority to draw for more districts than they did in 2011, 75 districts in the current process compared to 44 in 2011, according to Wasserman.

But Republicans will hold the pen in drawing far more —187 districts, down from 219 in 2011, he added. The remainder will be drawn either by bipartisan commissions, as is the case in Colorado and Michigan, or in states where control is split between the parties.

That’s the case in Pennsylvania, where Republicans control the Legislature, but the Democratic governor can (and likely will) veto the GOP-drawn congressional maps, throwing the process to the courts.

A national Democratic redistricting group affiliated with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder already filed suit in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Louisiana, asking state courts to prepare now to step in and ensure a timely map is crafted after what the group predicts will be a partisan stalemate.

Pennsylvania’s top court redrew the state’s congressional map in 2018, after finding the one drawn in 2011 to be unconstitutional. That shifted the state’s delegation from 13 Republicans and five Democrats to an even nine-to-nine split.

Those lawsuits were the first to be filed in what’s usually a litigious process, and Marc Elias, an attorney representing the National Redistricting Action Fund, wrote on Twitter: “They will not be the last.”

A spokesman for the National Republican Redistricting Trust sought to downplay the lawsuits, calling them “expensive press releases.”

The number of districts in a state and the political leanings of those drawing the lines are just two of many factors at play.

Another critical factor will be the granular data on where the population has shifted, which won’t be available from the Census Bureau until at least August.

That data will clarify which areas are growing, and may be a spot to add a district. A North Carolina state senator has bet on that prospect, filing campaign paperwork months before the state was guaranteed a 14th district, as North Carolina Policy Watch has reported.

It also will show which districts need to gain the most people to create districts that are roughly equal in size. Under the new congressional districts, each member of the House will represent an average of 761,000 residents.

Those shifts will have ripple effects across each map, creating uncertainty as challengers wait to see if their home may end up in the district of an incumbent from the same party, or in a much more competitive seat than expected.

Redistricting in Georgia

In Georgia, McBath and Bourdeaux rode a blue wave that crested over Atlanta’s northern suburbs in the 2020 elections.

McBath squeaked out a 2018 win in the 6th District, which includes parts of Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties against Republican Karen Handel, who held the seat for two years. Last year, she cemented her position — and the Atlanta suburbs’ tilt toward Democrats — with a more decisive win over Handel of more than 35,000 votes.

Bordeaux lost the 7th District by less than 500 votes in 2018 against incumbent Rob Woodall but came back two years later to defeat Republican challenger Rich McCormick by about 10,000 votes.

The detailed data Georgia will use to redraw Congressional lines is not set to be released until the fall, but Republicans are likely working on a map to maximize their advantages. One option Republicans could consider would be to pack more safe Democratic voters into McBath’s district and extend Bourdeaux’s district into more conservative territory, said Bullock, the UGA professor.

That could leave McBath’s district, once represented by conservative stalwarts like Newt Gingrich and Tom Price, a safe Democratic seat, but give Republicans a fighting chance to unseat Bourdeaux, a relative newcomer with a slimmer margin of victory.

Republican Rep. Jody Hice announced recently he will run against Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger instead seeking re-election, which will give the GOP-controlled state Legislature more wiggle room to rearrange the state’s maps, Bullock said.

“They’re going to want to draw a district that will be Republican, but they don’t have to worry about making sure it includes Hice’s home, or it includes a large part of what Hice is currently representing, which, if he was going to run reelection, again, he would ask for that,” Bullock said.

The challenge for Republicans, Bullock said, is to consider not only the map as it is in 2021, but how it will look for the next census in 2030 and try to thread the needle between protecting their majority and overreaching.

“The old saying is pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered,” Bullock said. “If a party gets too greedy and tries to maximize the number of districts, you’re probably going to end up with a number of very marginal districts, so if there’s any kind of a wave in the favor of the other party, then the party that drew the districts gets killed.”

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Georgia Recorder. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.

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