We're taking a look at the impact of Republican gerrymanders on the 2016 and 2018 congressional elections. Read why in our introductory post, and click here for the full series.
On Dec. 11, Pennsylvania’s Republican-drawn congressional map will go on trial in a lawsuit alleging that the GOP unconstitutionally discriminated against Democratic voters based on their partisan affiliation—in other words, they gerrymandered. And unlike a lot of slow-moving litigation over redistricting, the state Supreme Court ordered an expedited timeframe for the lower-level court hearing the case to complete its proceedings so that the case can be resolved in time for the 2018 elections.
Crucially, if the courts strike down the GOP’s congressional map, Pennsylvania could wind up with an entirely nonpartisan replacement. Republicans still hold the state legislature, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf could veto any alternative the GOP proposes, which would lead the court to draw new lines itself. And unlike power-hungry lawmakers, judges would rely on strictly nonpartisan criteria in coming up with a remedial plan. In this article, we’ll examine what such a nonpartisan map could look like, and why it could lead to major Democratic gains in 2018.
Republicans controlled congressional redistricting in Pennsylvania for the last two decades, and the map they drew in 2011 (shown at the top of this post) is one of the most brutally effective gerrymanders of the modern era (see here for a larger version). Thanks to successive wave elections in 2006 and 2008, Democrats managed to win a majority of seats in the state’s delegation, though they gave back all of those gains in 2010, when it was the GOP’s turn to enjoy a huge wave.
Following those elections, Republicans determined to cement their majority in the most recent round of redistricting. Despite the fact that Pennsylvania is an evenly divided swing state, Republicans locked in a 13-to-5 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation, which hasn’t budged over the last three election cycles. That even included 2012, when Barack Obama carried the state by 5 points—and Democratic House candidates won more votes statewide than the GOP—and 2016, when Donald Trump won the Keystone State by less than a point.
Due to this gross partisan imbalance, Democratic voters have sought relief at the courthouse.
At the moment, there are two other lawsuits pending in federal court over this same congressional map, but this case is different. That’s because plaintiffs are challenging the map based strictly on the state constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and freedom of association, meaning the matter will be heard in state courts. And crucially, because Democrats won a majority on the state Supreme Court in the 2015 elections, that gives the plaintiffs a realistic shot at invalidating this map. It also gives the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court very little latitude to override the state courts’ interpretation of Pennsylvania’s own constitution.
With that in mind, let’s examine what a nonpartisan Pennsylvania congressional map could look like. We’ll analyze how the 2016 elections may have played out had this map been in existence instead of the actual GOP gerrymander, and what those hypotheticals could mean for 2018.
We drew these districts with traditional nonpartisan redistricting criteria in mind while respecting the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Chief among these factors is preserving communities of interest, which means we aimed to keep together groups that share sociodemographic similarities, a common geography, or a culture. We also sought to minimize the number of municipalities and counties split between districts, and we ignored data on partisan voting behavior and where incumbents live.
As a result, our map radically redraws Pennsylvania so that the only split municipality is Philadelphia, which is too large for a single district in any event. The districts are also significantly more compact, though this much-fetishized criterion has many warring definitions, even among experts, and therefore was a lower priority for us. You can see the results below:
Looking at the political impact, the 7th District would transform from its infamous Rorschach blot sprawled across Philadelphia’s western suburbs into a compact seat centered on Delaware County. Under the current lines, it voted for Hillary Clinton by a narrow 49-47 margin; with our proposed boundaries, Clinton would have carried it 62-35. Republican Rep. Pat Meehan ran far ahead of Trump in this ancestrally GOP region last year, but even he would’ve been no match for a seat this blue, either in last year or next.
Unlike in many states, the underlying geographic distribution of Democratic voters truly does hamper the party in Pennsylvania—though not as much as some pundits believe. Democratic voters are heavily concentrated in Philadelphia and other urban districts, while Republicans are more efficiently spread out in the suburbs and more rural areas. Consequently, the 7th is likely the only extra seat that Democrats would have been guaranteed to win in 2016 in the absence of Republican gerrymandering. However, many other swing seats or districts with popular centrist Democrats likely would have been winnable in 2016 or other years.
Incumbency was a key Democratic strength heading into the 2011 round of redistricting that Republicans shrewdly neutralized. Pennsylvania Democrats saw three centrist incumbents survive the 2010 GOP wave despite representing conservative seats, but the Republican gerrymander caused all of them to lose in 2012. Had the GOP’s map never gone into effect that year, some of those entrenched Democrats could have prevailed under a nonpartisan map and possibly have stayed in office past 2016.
Looking back to the GOP’s map at the top of this post, Republicans skillfully dispatched suburban Pittsburgh-area Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire and Johnstown-based Democratic Rep. Mark Critz by combining them into the conservative-leaning 12th District. Altmire lost the primary and Critz then narrowly lost in the 2012 general election to Republican Keith Rothfus, who still holds the seat today. Republicans likewise consolidated longtime Democratic Rep. Tim Holden’s base in Schuylkill County with heavily Democratic Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. As a result, the Blue Dog Holden lost the 2012 primary to a more progressive Democratic challenger, Matt Cartwright.
Under our nonpartisan map shown above, Holden would have avoided a fight with Cartwright by running in the Harrisburg and Schuylkill County-based 11th District. Three-fourths of our proposed 11th comes from the old 17th District, which Holden comfortably won by 11 points even in the 2010 GOP wave. This revamped 11th favored Trump by a wide 56-40, but Holden’s immense personal appeal with Trump-voting former Democrats in places like Schuylkill (where he was once sheriff) would have given him a fighting chance to keep winning this proposed district had it existed since 2012. Holden himself is only 60 years old, so he could seek a comeback if the courts adopt lines like these.
Meanwhile, the 12th District would drop its eastern appendage and consist entirely of Pittsburgh’s suburbs. It covers about two-thirds of the same population that Altmire’s old 4th District did, and it had a similar level of Obama support. Altmire eked out a 51-49 victory in the 4th even in the 2010 wave, and he would have won renomination in the 12th in 2012 instead of Critz without the GOP gerrymander.
While our proposed 12th still favored Trump by 52-44 and Romney by 55-44, Altmire’s moderate record and personal popularity could have allowed him to survive as the incumbent. Altmire moved to Florida following his defeat and would be unlikely to run again should the courts end up drawing something similar to what we’ve envisioned, but Rothfus could still be vulnerable in this light-red seat next year, given how Democrats have been improving in similarly well-educated suburban seats.
Down in southeastern Pennsylvania, the 6th District, which Clinton won by less than one point, would be redrawn to contain all of dark-blue Reading and its suburbs in Berks County, plus almost all of well-educated suburban Chester County, shifting it to a considerably wider 53-43 Clinton victory. GOP Rep. Ryan Costello won his second term 57-43 over an unheralded Democrat in 2016, but a bluer 6th could have enticed a stronger Democratic candidate into the race.
There are ripple effects, though: Placing Reading and the rest of Chester County in the 6th would turn Republican Rep. Lloyd Smucker’s Lancaster-based 16th District from a relatively modest 51-44 Trump win to a lopsided 58-37 Trump victory. However, Democrats already face an uphill battle to capture the existing 16th in 2018, and losing that opportunity for upset would be a comparatively small price to pay for making several other GOP-held seats bluer.
As shown on the map below, Democrats could have had a chance to win all three of these proposed seats—the hypothetical 6th, 11th, and 12th districts—in 2016, meaning Republican gerrymandering likely cost the party anywhere from one to four seats last year. And going forward, eliminating GOP gerrymandering would also help Democrats in three additional seats, even if it wouldn’t have changed any other 2016 outcomes.
The suburban 8th District in upper Bucks and Montgomery counties would flip from a Trump win of just 0.2 percent to a Clinton victory of one point. Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick won his first term 54-46 in a heavily contested race last year, but he could be vulnerable under these proposed lines if 2018 indeed becomes a Democratic wave.
Splitting Bucks (which is presently contained almost entirely in the 8th) would make the district more educated and upscale, while Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle’s 13th District would become a more cohesive middle-class seat on Philadelphia’s northeastern periphery. Boyle would still be secure in this 53-43 Clinton seat, and Democrats in the 8th could benefit from this reconfiguration in the future if the parties continue polarizing along educational-attainment lines.
Meanwhile, the Lehigh Valley fits almost perfectly into the 15th District, and reunifying that area shifts it from 52-44 Trump to just 49-47 Trump, while it also flips from 51-48 Romney to 52-47 Obama. GOP Rep. Charlie Dent is one of the least-conservative remaining Republicans and very entrenched there, meaning he likely would have still won in 2016. However, Democrats would stand an excellent chance of picking up this hypothetical district in 2018 thanks to the fact that Dent has decided to retire.
Furthermore, while Cartwright’s 17th District was drawn to pack in Democratic voters to neutralize Holden and protect neighboring Republican seats, this heavily white working-class seat nonetheless flipped from 55-43 Obama to 53-43 Trump in 2016. Cartwright prevailed by a modest 54-46 over an unheralded foe last year and could be vulnerable to a GOP challenge in the future. Our redrawn 17th would drop the Trump-friendly Schuylkill County and gain the rest of the inner Wyoming Valley urban area around Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. That change subsequently narrows Trump’s margin to 52-45 and boosts Obama’s to 57-42, which could make all the difference for Cartwright if his next race is a close one.
Lastly, our proposed map dramatically reconfigures Philadelphia’s dark-blue 1st and 2nd districts. Although Democrats currently hold both of them, our versions would likely lead to a better Democrat replacing longtime 1st District Rep. Bob Brady, who is under investigation for corruption. Our map maintains the majority-black population in the 2nd, but it turns the 1st from a predominantly white seat to one where African Americans comprise 46 of the eligible voter population and whites just 31 percent. Democratic Rep. Dwight Evans, who is African-American, represents the 2nd, but he lives in the 1st and could run there. Regardless, a black Democrat would have a great shot at replacing Brady.
Overall, these districts could have produced an additional one to four Democratic representatives from 2012 to 2016 while increasing black representation to two members overall, which is much more proportional to the black share of Pennsylvania’s population. And with key GOP retirements and 2018 shaping up to be a good year for Democrats, the party could gain anywhere from one to six seats if the court installs a map like this one in 2018. The state Supreme Court has set a deadline of Dec. 31 for the lower court to conclude its business in this case, meaning we should have a much better idea of what the outcome will be very soon.