As redistricting gets under way, Democrats' prospects looking brighter

By Joseph Ax and Jason Lange

(Reuters) - When Republican-controlled states such as Texas and Florida gained U.S. House of Representative seats thanks to 2020 census data showing their populations are booming, it appeared Democrats were in for another bleak redistricting cycle.

But the census also found that most of the nation's growth is in urban areas and among minorities. Coupled with the shift of suburban white voters toward Democrats during the presidency of Republican Donald Trump, the party's prospects for the next decade are looking less dire.

Proposals for new congressional maps in Republican-controlled states such as Texas, Indiana and Georgia do not aggressively target Democratic incumbents and instead seek mostly to protect vulnerable Republicans whose suburban districts have become political battlegrounds.

Meanwhile, Democrats are poised to push through their own maps in states such as New York and Illinois, where urban growth and rural decline offer a chance to eliminate Republican districts. Gains there could help countermand Republican advantages elsewhere.

In most states, the power to redraw congressional district maps after the decennial U.S. Census lies with the legislature, and lawmakers often attempt to manipulate maps to benefit their own party in a practice known as gerrymandering.

The stakes are high: Republicans only need to pick up five seats in 2022 elections to retake the House, which would give them effective veto power over Democratic President Joe Biden's legislative agenda.

Republicans currently control the redistricting of 187 congressional seats compared with only 75 for Democrats, according to an analysis by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. The remaining 173 seats are in states that have single districts, bipartisan control or independent redistricting commissions.

Many Republican states already use gerrymandered maps from the last round of redistricting in 2010, after the party seized control of nearly two dozen state legislative chambers.

"In many parts of the country, the Republicans are already near their ceiling in terms of how many seats they can squeeze out of them," said Paul Smith, who helps oversee litigation and strategy at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for fair elections.

The final outcome is uncertain. More than 40 states have not yet enacted maps, and litigation challenging district lines is inevitable.

'DEFENSIVE GERRYMANDER'

Cities such as Austin, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia, saw rapid growth in the last decade, much of it in minority populations who tend to vote Democratic.

The demographic changes have prompted Republicans to cede some Democratic gains to focus their attention elsewhere.

In Austin, for instance, previous redistricting exercises aimed to dilute the city's liberal power by mixing its voters in with those of its more conservative suburbs in a crazy quilt of districts. Austin voters make up about 75% of Travis County, which went for Biden over Trump by a 45-point margin.

But suburban voters have turned sharply away from Republicans in recent years, while the 2020 census showed the city grew by more than 20%. That pushed Republican state lawmakers this week to propose a map that put much of Austin into a new overwhelmingly Democratic district to shore up Republican seats in the surrounding areas.

The proposed map, which includes two new districts thanks to Texas' nation-leading population boom, would eliminate virtually every competitive district in the state, both Republican and Democratic, in order to preserve Republicans' current advantage.

Under the new lines, only three of the state's 38 districts would have had a margin of less than 10 percentage points separating Trump and Biden, not counting third-party votes.

"It's a defensive gerrymander, as opposed to an offensive one," said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center. "That doesn't mean it's not bad."

Democrats and advocacy groups have criticized the new map for not creating districts with a majority of minority voters, who were responsible for nearly all of the state's population increase. Federal law requires certain such districts to ensure minority voters' power is not diluted.

"I think it was intentional and deliberate, to undercut the explosive growth in the minority population in Texas," said Democratic State Assemblyman Ron Reynolds.

The office of Republican state Senator Joan Huffman, who authored the map, did not respond to a request for comment.

In Georgia, a proposed map from state Senate Republicans this week endangers Democrat Lucy McBath, who occupies a former Republican district in the Atlanta suburbs.

But Carolyn Bourdeaux, the only Democrat to flip a Republican House seat last year, would see her nearby district become much more Democratic, reflecting the increasingly diverse area that helped drive Biden's surprising statewide victory.

DEMOCRATS ON OFFENSE

Democrats are seeking to counter any losses by going on the offense in states they govern.

New York, where Democrats control redistricting for the first time in more than a century, could prove to be the cycle's biggest prize.

Analysts say the legislature's Democratic super-majorities could eliminate up to five Republican seats. A bipartisan commission is tasked with producing an advisory map, but Democrats have the votes to reject it.

Republicans have accused Democrats of plotting to force through a gerrymander.

Democrats also appear poised to erase at least one, and possibly two, Republican seats in Illinois. In Oregon, the Democratic majority pushed through a map this week that gives the party the advantage in five of six districts.

New York State Senator Mike Gianaris, the Democrat who co-chairs the committee that would take over redistricting if the state's commission fails, said the aim was to draw the lines "fairly" to reflect demographic shifts.

"Just because the result will be more Democrats doesn't mean it was drawn for that purpose," he said, while acknowledging that no one "is ignorant of the national implications of what we're doing."

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, and Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Sonya Hepinstall)