“We have decided to win, and that’s what we’ll do,” was how a defiant Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, responded to a question regarding the Democratic Party’s fortunes in the U.S. midterm elections later this year. Of the many prizes at stake on November 8th, one of the most significant is control of the House of Representatives. All 435 House seats are in contention, and the Democrats can only afford to lose five if they want to maintain their majority. The added element that makes the 2022 midterms of particular interest is that they will be the first to use the new electoral districts created by ongoing redistricting. Given the developments made so far, what might redistricting mean for control of the House in November?
Before analyzing the potential implications of the redistricting process for 2022, it is worth establishing what redistricting is. In the United States, the Census Bureau conducts a nationwide census to determine the size of the population every ten years, the most recent being in 2020. After completing the census, officials apportion the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the 50 states based on those population figures. Redistricting comes as a part of this process, as state officials draw or redraw House electoral districts to accommodate population changes, often in ways that can influence which party has an advantage in winning the district.
From the electoral maps completed at this moment, it is evident that Democrats have made bigger gains than Republicans (GOP). This is surprising, given that the GOP started with control over the redistricting process in states with 179 House seats, as opposed to the Democrats’ 75 seats. These new gains come from the highly aggressive approach Democrats are taking with redistricting. A notable instance of this is evident in New York’s map, which, if it survives litigation, is expected to give Democrats as many as 22 out of the 26 seats, up from the current 19-8 split.
Favourable court rulings have also delivered major victories for the Democrats’ redistricting efforts. A good example of this is in Ohio, where the state Supreme Court struck down a Republican-oriented map that would have given the GOP a good chance to win 12 out of 15 seats in a state where they usually only get a little over half the state-wide popular vote. Overall, redistricting seems to have created new seats for the Democrats and warded off potential losses in other states.
The Republicans, meanwhile, have been approaching redistricting with a more cautious and nuanced approach. Instead of aggressively pursuing expansion, they seem to be attempting to consolidate and shore up their defences. Doug Spencer, a redistricting and election law expert at the University of Colorado Law School, characterized the strategy Republicans seem to be following as “certainty over risky maximization.” It is perhaps most apparent in the new Texas map, where many formerly competitive districts are now classified by POLITICO as being safely Republican. This strategy means that in November, Republicans have to worry less about losing seats, and will also likely allow them to divert resources to more vulnerable, competitive electoral districts.
As is evident, both parties are trying to maximize their gains by creating more solid, safe seats which lean towards their respective parties. The trade-off of this is that there are fewer districts that are reasonably within the realm of high competition. As of February 17th, FiveThirtyEight reports that there are eight less highly competitive seats than there were before the redistricting process began, and there is still the potential for more to be axed.
This reduction in the number of highly competitive seats could make these remaining districts incredibly important for securing control of the House majority, but does not give either party much leeway or room for error. This could be particularly problematic for the Democrats, who might find themselves unable to win the required competitive districts, given the myriad of significant problems they are currently facing as the party in power. One could point to pandemic fatigue, the 40-year high economic inflation, the failure to pass their legislative agenda, or US President Joe Biden’s abysmal approval ratings sitting at an average of 41.8 percent as of February 21st.
However, it is important to acknowledge that the redistricting process is still far from over. In many places, the process is still ongoing, with some states still needing to approve a map, while others are held up in litigation. This could mean major changes before the election in November. At the moment, redistricting looks more beneficial for the Democrats. But, when combined with the shrinking number of highly competitive districts that they might need for a majority, and the many significant problems they are facing as the party in power, they will need to hope conditions improve, otherwise Republicans stand a good chance of sweeping to power.
Edited by Rita Broberg
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Featured image by Ron Cogswell and obtained via Flickr Creative Commons