Democrats' early hopes for redistricting gains founder amid string of legal reversals

Courts have struck down gerrymandered Democratic maps, while newly drawn congressional lines favoring the GOP appear poised to stick.

Updated: May 28, 2022 - 10:49pm

Democrats had high hopes of securing a competitive edge in congressional elections for the foreseeable future after a series of redistricting wins earlier this year — but they've come crashing back to earth with a string of recent legal reversals both major and minor.

The change of fortune is especially disappointing for Democrats as the party is already bracing for big losses in the November midterm elections, with President Biden's approval rating remaining low and polling indicating Americans are dissatisfied with the state of the economy and the general direction of the country.

The most striking redistricting reversal came in New York, where a state court  formally approved New York's new congressional map, which effectively reversed an ambitious Democratic gerrymander and paved the way for potentially several Republican pickups.

Earlier this year, New York Democrats released a congressional redistricting map that would give them as many as three more seats and likely slash the state's already-small GOP representation in Congress by half.

But last month, New York's highest court struck down the congressional lines, ruling the plan violated a 2014 state constitutional amendment that reformed the redistricting process and outlawed partisan gerrymandering. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore explained the map was enacted "in a nontransparent manner controlled exclusively by the dominant political party [the Democrats]."

Therefore, the court said, the new lines would need to be drawn by a nonpartisan special master, whose final plan was approved last week.

The new map has disappointed and angered Democrats. It will help two upstate Republicans avoid a potential primary conflict while pitting two longtime Democratic heavyweights in Congress, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, against each other in a contentious primary battle.

The new map will also reverse Democrats' plan to insert liberal Park Slope, Brooklyn into New York City's only Republican-held district, represented by Rep. Nicole Malliotakis.

Maryland was another state where courts tossed out Democratic redistricting plans for going too far.

In December, Maryland's congressional map passed on a largely party-line vote. The plan created seven safe congressional sets for Democrats and endangered the state's only Republican incumbent in Congress, Rep. Andy Harris, by making his district much more competitive.

In March, a Maryland judge threw out the map, calling it an "extreme partisan gerrymander."

The new map, formally approved the following month, keeps Harris's seat safe while making the district of Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) much more competitive.

The original Democratic proposals in both New York and Maryland weren't just criticized by Republicans. Even Eric Holder, the man spearheading the political left's redistricting efforts as chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, cautiously came out against them.

"I indicated my opposition to what had happened, with [what] the legislature did in Maryland. I agreed with the judge in [what] he did there," Holder said on CBS' "Face the Nation" earlier this month. "In New York, what I've said is that those are not the maps I would have drawn in New York."

The Washington Post noted last week that Holder, who served as attorney general under former President Barack Obama, was effectively "silent" on the New York and Maryland maps while aggressively castigating maps drawn by Republicans.

Obama has been integral to Holder's efforts and has said redistricting would be his top priority after leaving the White House.

However, after having the wind at their back just a few months ago, many of their efforts have been stymied — beyond New York and Maryland.

In addition to Democratic gerrymandering efforts backfiring, several Republican efforts to redraw the maps have been upheld amid a wave of legal challenges.

In Wisconsin, for example, the state Supreme Court in March approved maps that largely preserve the current district lines that give Republicans majorities, despite Democratic Gov. Tony Evers previously vetoing Republican-drawn redistricting plans.

The biggest win for the GOP came in Florida, where an appeals court reinstated a map backed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that would potentially increase the number of GOP seats by four. The proposed boundaries would also make it difficult for Democratic Rep. Al Lawson to maintain his seat.

Several left-leaning voting rights and other advocacy groups, such as Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, had sued over the maps, accusing DeSantis of gerrymandering and shifting black populations to favor Republicans.

DeSantis has said his plan is neutral on race while some of the current lines, including Lawson's district, are gerrymandered based on race in their present form and therefore unconstitutional.

In Ohio, meanwhile, Republicans are set to be able to use their own redistricting map, despite the state Supreme Court ruling it unconstitutional.

Since the court ruling in January, Democrats and Republicans in Ohio have been unable to agree on new district lines. To break the impasse, a group of Republican voters filed a lawsuit in federal court. A panel of three federal judges ruled last month that they would order the maps rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court be put in place if the two sides can't reach an agreement on a final plan by May 28.

Last week in Kansas, the state Supreme Court declared the redistricting map approved by the Republican-led Legislature was in compliance with the Kansas Constitution. The plan — which will make it harder for the only Democrat in the state's congressional delegation, Rep. Sharice Davids, to win reelection — thus survives a previous lower court ruling that rejected the congressional lines.

In Alabama, the state Supreme Court similarly overrode a lower court ruling tossing out Republican redistricting plans.

"The legal setbacks and losses Democrats have suffered in the last three months have been staggering," Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report told Axios on Sunday.

However, Democrats successfully blocked Republican redistricting plans in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and maintained favorable maps in several states, including Illinois and Nevada, among others.

Still, the wave of Republican wins is striking after Democrats had so many redistricting victories earlier this year. Of more immediate concern for the party is that Democrats are widely expected to suffer large-scale losses in this year's midterm elections, meaning every seat gained for the GOP in redistricting makes a potentially historic red wave that much more likely.

"It's going to be a terrible cycle for Democrats," Doug Sosnik, a former political adviser to Bill Clinton, recently told the New York Times.

Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank, added that House candidates running in districts that President Biden won comfortably by 12 percentage points in 2020 "need to run like you're losing."