February 11, 2011 | National Journal | Original Article

Incumbents, Beware

For the past two years, virtually every House candidate who has come to the offices of The Cook Political Report for an interview has cited his or her desire to "shake things up" in Washington. Whether Democrat or Republican, they seemed united in the conviction that they could make a difference in Congress.

Three consecutive "wave" elections-favoring Democrats in 2006 and 2008, and Republicans in 2010-have generated a lot of change. Indeed, 131 of the 435 current House members, 30 percent of the body, were not there four years ago. Even if 2012 isn't a wave election, turnover could again be very high. Why? One word: redistricting.

The redistricting process that will take place this year and next could be far more tumultuous than we have seen in the past, less because of industrial-strength gerrymandering and more because the process may be very different in a number of key states.

This redistricting may be less respectful of incumbents' party affiliations. New legal restrictions in some states effectively prohibit partisan and political considerations in mapmaking, and that will minimize gerrymandering. But demographic changes in many states could force sitting members into new districts that have constituents who are very different from those they have represented before.

In 2002, blatant gerrymandering and incumbent protection were the rule in most large states. In California, Democrats passed a plan that created 33 safe Democratic seats and 20 safe Republican seats. In the next five cycles, only one out of 265 House elections in California resulted in a seat changing parties. In Georgia, Democrats drew a map so convoluted it could have been mistaken for a Jackson Pollock painting. And Texas Republicans' infamous mid-decade remap of 2004 came to define then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's brand of hard-nosed partisanship.

Fast-forward to the present. In California and Florida last year, voters passed ballot amendments that forbid mapmakers from favoring parties or incumbents or from taking an incumbent's residence into account. If adhered to, these rules would radically alter existing congressional boundaries with which incumbents on both sides have grown very comfortable. This obviously terrifies sitting members who have had the luxury of picking and choosing their voters-rather than voters picking their elected officials.

In the Golden State, ballot amendments championed by former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have established a 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission to redraw California's legislative and congressional boundaries. A friend showed me a flow chart plotting out the panel's selection and deliberation process, and it looked a lot like the diagrams that Republicans used to deride Hillary Rodham Clinton's health care proposals back in 1994. To pass a new plan, at least nine of the 14 commission members, including three Democrats, three Republicans, and three independents, must vote in favor.

If the outcome is more-compact districts in California, that will surely result in more competitive elections and likely a healthy turnover. The most vulnerable members will be those who have benefited from heavily gerrymandered districts. Incumbents most at risk could be several Republicans in general elections and Democrats in primaries.

Veteran Republicans Ken Calvert, David Dreier, and Dan Lungren represent districts neighboring more-Democratic territory that could become problematic. Democrats Howard Berman, Sam Farr, Bob Filner, Laura Richardson, and Brad Sherman have gotten away with excluding just enough Hispanics from their districts to avoid a serious primary challenge. The new districts could become much more hospitable to Latino candidates.

In Florida, where Democrats hold just six of the state's 25 congressional districts, their exposure is somewhat limited. Republican legislators still hold the authority to draw the new 27-seat map, but the Fair Districts Florida ballot amendments passed in 2010 may limit their ability to split counties and otherwise engage in egregious gerrymandering. Still, Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown, whose district snakes from Jacksonville to Gainesville to Orlando, and odd-bedfellow Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart are filing suit to block Fair Districts in federal court.

Democrats know that a "fair" map in Florida would grant them up to 10 safe districts and as many as 13 more in which they could compete. But they also know that the outcome is contingent upon dismantling Brown's substantially African-American 3rd District and replacing it with one Democratic seat in Jacksonville and two Democratic seats in Orlando. Republicans, whose goal is to protect all 19 of their members and add two new ones, will obviously refuse to draw such a map even if they fail to block Fair Districts. But Democrats believe that the courts will overturn a GOP map if it doesn't do a good job of adhering to the Fair Districts criteria.

Democrats in California suspect that their state's commission will never be able to agree on a plan and that a judge will draw California's new map in the middle of the night. Republicans in Florida insist they can overturn their state's new rules in court. Obviously, there are a lot of questions and few answers, but don't expect this decade's redistricting to be nearly as predictable as past ones.