GOP officials from D.C. and the states are debating how aggressively to break up red-state cities to maximize the party’s advantage in redistricting.
Kentucky’s GOP congressional delegation entered the redistricting cycle with an unusual request for their state legislative counterparts: leave Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth alone.
The group, which includes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, wants the state’s Republican supermajority to refrain from cracking Yarmuth’s Louisville-based district into three, even if that might deliver them control of all of Kentucky’s six House seats.
“It’s been my experience in studying history that when you get real cute, you end up in a lawsuit — and you lose it. And then the courts redraw the lines,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.). “So my advice would be to keep Louisville blue.”
This kind of redistricting debate — over how aggressively Republicans should try to eliminate the remaining Democratic enclaves in red states — is playing out in cities across the upper South and Midwest. Local Republicans, eager to grow their numbers in Congress and provide launching pads for ambitious state legislators, might be more inclined to carve up those blue pockets. But others in the GOP are wary of a rapid and unpredictable political realignment that complicates the drawing of new maps — and the threat of the legal behemoth Democrats have assembled to counter them.
Unabashed partisan gerrymandering that was commonplace after 2010 is now giving some Republicans pause. Top party strategists are urging state mapmakers to play it safe and draw lines that can withstand demographic change throughout the decade and lawsuits.
“There’s an old saying: Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). “And when it comes to redistricting, that is, in fact, the case.”
Besides Yarmuth in Louisville, Republicans will also have to consider whether to take the knife to the seats of Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) in Nashville; Reps. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) in Kansas City on both sides of the border and perhaps even freshman Rep. Frank Mrvan (D-Ind.) in northwest Indiana. Also potentially on the chopping block: the city of Omaha, the “cracking” of which could shore up Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) in one of the nation’s swingiest seats.
The decisions they make will shape the balance of power in Congress for the next five cycles. And because Nebraska splits its Electoral College votes by congressional district — changes there could even sway the 2024 and 2028 presidential contests.
Interviews with nearly two dozen GOP lawmakers and strategists across those six states reveal a flurry of ongoing discussions over whether to make wholesale or more incremental changes to the new maps. Some legislators seem more interested than others in upsetting the status quo.
And back in D.C., the party line has been one of caution.
In a presentation at the House GOP leadership retreat in Florida earlier this year, the party’s top redistricting strategist, Adam Kincaid, pointed out to lawmakers their inherent advantages in 2022 but warned against overreach.
“Be smart,” Kincaid said in a recent interview, summing up his advice. “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
Attendees of his presentation concurred with the warning.
“We got a hard lesson in that in North Carolina and Pennsylvania last time,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), referencing two states who had GOP-drawn maps invalidated mid-decade by state courts. The new lines netted Democrats several House seats. “They stretched the rubber band too far.”
“Not to mention again,” added Cole, who as the top Republican on the House Rules Committee attended the retreat, “you get too greedy, then you have a bad election — and instead of losing a couple of seats, you lose four or five.”
That math is top of mind for the GOP legislators in Missouri, where Republicans hold six of the state’s eight districts. In St. Louis, Democratic Rep. Cori Bush’s seat isprotected by the Voting Rights Act, but Cleaver’s in Kansas City is not. Cracking his district could bring Republicans to a 7-1 advantage in the state.
“The challenge there is: four or five of the Republican incumbents would have to take a 3 to 5 percent reduction in the Republican base,” said James Harris, a veteran Missouri operative who has advised the state legislature on redistricting in the past. He said he has not sensed a desire from Jefferson City lawmakers to doom Cleaver: “There’s a scenario where you could have a year where you end up with a 5-3 makeup, as opposed to always a 6-2 map.”
But Democrats are remaining on guard. Cleaver said several Missouri attorneys have approached him about representing him in redistricting litigation should his district change significantly.
And Nashville is perhaps the city that Republicans are most likely to splice among a few districts, seriously endangering Cooper’s hopes of reelection.
In a terse interview outside the House chamber, Cooper said he believes that outcome is “probable” given the desire for the GOP to end Democrats’ narrow majority in Congress, which will shrink to three seats this summer. “Do the math.”
“Don’t be an innocent about this,” he said. “What’s to restrain them? They have a supermajority. There’s a three-vote difference here, and they’re going to obey Emily Post etiquette?”
To be sure, cracking cities to dilute Democratic voters is not a new strategy for Republicans and they have certainly deployed it successfully in the past.
A divided Cincinnati has kept GOP Rep. Steve Chabot insulated even from the Democratic wave year in 2018. The splicing of Salt Lake City keeps all of Utah’s four seats red in good years for Republicans. And the cracking of Greensboro in North Carolina ensured now-former Rep. Mark Walker a seat in Congress until a court struck down the map in 2019.
But the political environment of the Trump era has become increasingly volatile, making it harder to gauge how certain regions will perform in 2022. Deep red seats in the suburbs have quickly transformed into Democratic turf and some typically blue seats, especially Latino-majority districts, have moved toward the GOP equally as quickly.
“It’s harder to predict,” said Kincaid, who serves as the executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust. “We don’t know where we will be four years from now, much less eight. I think there’s more awareness of that now than there’s been in the past.”
And Democrats, meanwhile, have vowed to be as aggressive as possible in the courts — even for districts not covered by the Voting Rights Act, but that still divide certain communities.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, has amassed large sums of money and an army of lawyers to ready to assail Republican-drawn maps. And the kind of packing and cracking needed to split cities could violate certain federal and state laws. “There are arguments and tools at our disposal to fight back,” said Kelly Ward Burton, the group’s president.
“We are ready for anything and we do expect them to be brazen,” she said, “because they are feeling an existential threat from the voters.”
In Nebraska, Democrats in the state’s unicameral legislature have enough seats to launch a filibuster of any GOP-drawn map. Of the three congressional districts, only the one that includes Omaha and its surrounding Douglas County is competitive.
A map that cracks Omaha could create a new reliably Republican seat. But the ever-present urban-rural divide in the state may make that difficult.
“That would not fly because you still want to maintain the communities of interest and whatnot,” said former state Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, who oversaw Nebraska’s redistricting in 2011. “It’s hard to justify dividing up a city like Omaha, without a compelling reason to do so.”
Though he admitted the legislature could decide otherwise: “It would only be my guess, at this point, because I haven’t really talked to them about it.”
In Indiana, the splitting of the seat held by Rep. André Carson in Indianapolis — a major metropolis — would probably endanger too many of the surrounding seats. But it would be possible to target the other Democratic district,by overwhelming the city of Gary with red counties.
Redistricting is a largely parochial affair, and maps are frequently drawn by local legislators who may not be as receptive to the requests of the federal delegation or national party strategists. That’s especially true if state lawmakers have designs to be in Congress.
Democrats were outraged that the chair of Kansas’s redistricting committee, state Rep. Chris Croft, is openly considering a run against Davids in Kansas City. And in Tennessee, former state House Speaker Beth Harwell, who still has friends in the legislature, has expressed interest in a new GOP-friendly Nashville district.
But in Kentucky, it seems likely that the preference of the top Republican in the Senate would carry considerable sway. McConnell has made it known to mapmakers that he feels Yarmuth’s seat should remain intact, according to people familiar with those conversations.
“His advice to them has been: Louisville is its own entity — and he’s from Louisville — and so let them have a member of Congress to represent Louisville,” Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) said.
And, he added: “We’re not trying to get rid of John.”