The battle for control of the narrowly divided House of Representatives got even more competitive this week, tilting in favor of Democrats. And it has nothing to do with issues or the candidates themselves.
After an embarrassing showing in the 2022 midterms, when Democrats in neon-blue New York lost four congressional seats and, with them, control of the House of Representatives, the party now has a new chance to reclaim those seats and more in 2024. A state court Thursday ordered that new congressional lines be drawn, giving Democrats – who control the governorship and the state legislature – a chance to pick up four to six seats in next year’s elections.
If the ruling is upheld, that could be pivotal for Democrats, who need to flip just five seats to regain control of the House – especially important in a year when Republicans are well-positioned to take control of the even more closely divided Senate.
The heated political arguments over abortion, the economy, election integrity and a slew of other issues are sure to continue during the 2024 races for Congress. But with voters largely dug in on their political leanings (a Pew Research Center study this week found few party defections among voters in 2022), it’s a handful of redistricting cases that are emerging as a major factor in who will run the House after next year’s elections.
Democrats are advantaged by recent Supreme Court decisions paving the way for new, Black-majority congressional districts in Alabama and Louisiana. An upset, landslide victory by a liberal state Supreme Court justice in Wisconsin may well result in yet another new congressional map in the Badger State, giving Democrats opportunities for more seats.
In Utah, a state court this week appeared skeptical of arguments by the GOP-run state legislature defending its map, drawn in a way that gives Republicans an edge in all four congressional districts.
The state legislature had voted to repeal a 2018 ballot referendum that said district lines could not be gerrymandered for partisan political gain. It’s not clear when the state court will rule, but the process could give Democrats an opportunity to compete for a seat in the Salt lake City area.
In Kentucky, Democrats are fighting a GOP-drawn map in the state Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear the case in September. Even if Democrats win that case, however, it’s unclear if a new map could net them another seat in red Kentucky.
Republicans have some chances at pickups as well because of redistricting challenges. In North Carolina, a shift in the makeup of the state Supreme Court could net the GOP several congressional seats. While the court had earlier ruled that partisan gerrymandering is illegal, the new conservative majority in April reversed itself, saying the state legislature could draw partisan gerrymandered maps.
The New York case is the latest chapter in a brutal partisan fight that has upended efforts to make the process politically neutral.
In 2014, New York approved a constitutional amendment taking the job of redrawing district lines away from the state legislature and putting it in the hands of a bipartisan advisory commission.
The Democratic governor at the time, Andrew Cuomo, said the move would “permanently reform the redistricting process in New York to once and for all end self-interested partisan gerrymandering.”
It didn’t work out that way. The panel is made up of four Democrats and four Republicans (appointed directly by the state legislature) and two politically unaffiliated members. The maps the commission draws must be approved by the state legislature.
That might have created a balanced approach, back when Republicans controlled the state Senate and Democrats had the majority in the Assembly. But by 2021, Democrats had supermajorities in both chambers, noted Michael Li, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center.
Democrats had no incentive to compromise with the GOP, Brennan writes in an analysis of the case, so the process became deadlocked, with Republicans on the commission reluctant to send a map to a legislature almost certain to reject it, then draw its own.
The deadlock and ensuing court fights meant that a highly competitive map was in place for 2022, giving the GOP an opportunity to pick up four seats (and Democrats, used to phoning it in in some districts, didn’t run effective campaigns, party operatives fumed).
But after Thursday’s court ruling, the bipartisan commission will be directed to write a new map. With another deadlock anticipated, it is expected that Democrats in the state legislature will have the chance to do the map themselves – exactly the outcome the 2014 state constitutional amendment was meant to prevent.
Democrats predictably hailed the ruling, while Republicans vowed to appeal.
“When Democrats can’t compete, they cheat,” New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, chairperson of the U.S. House Republican Conference, and GOP state Chairman Ed Cox said in a joint statement.
For the moment, however, New York Democrats appear poised to regain what they lost in the House last year – and maybe give their party the speakership.