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Redistricting: What Do You Get for the Grand Old Party That Has Everything?

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Let there be no doubt: Texas is a popular place to live. In case you missed yesterday’s U.S. Census release, Texas has a lot more people than it did ten years ago—20 percent more to be precise. To reflect our popularity, we will now have four new congressional districts. For the record, that’s a lot. No other state got more than two new congressmen, and many across the Midwest lost representation.

But I think I was the only one to get excited that I was ahead of the curve. (I lived in Texas before the Census said it was cool!) Nope. Instead everyone else turned to the implications of these new numbers on redistricting. In the next several months, the state legislature will redraw districts for the state House and Senate, as well as the U.S. Congressional Districts. Over at The Cook Political Report, well-respected political soothsayers, they predicted that the state will split Congressional District 27 “in half creating a new Hispanic majority district anchored around the current 27th CD’s southern terminus in Brownsville, and merge GOP-leaning Corpus Christi and Anglo areas north into a district designed for ambitious Gulf Coast-area Republican.” Speculation was soon rampant that state Rep. Aaron Peña, a long-time Democrat who recently switched parties, might try to grab the Brownsville district Cook imagined.

While we can only make guesses until the Census releases more specific county-by-county numbers in March, the discussion ignores a major dilemma for Republicans, particularly in Texas. In the words of Jack Nicholson, thing are as good as they get. In the GOP tsunami that swept through, Democrats from seemingly safe districts—like David Leibowitz of San Antonio—lost almost as badly as those in competitive districts. When the legislative session begins in January, the state House will stand with 101 Republicans to 49 Democrats. At a Congressional level, 23 of the state’s 32 seats are currently held by Republicans. The state Senate is the most split, and even there the Democrats cling to their 12-seat minority, barely more than a third of total. No one, not even Tom Delay, could have masterminded outcomes this deep a shade of red.

But what’s good news for the GOP now presents a major dilemma when it comes to redistricting. There’s almost no way that 2012 will bring the 2010 level of conservative enthusiasm. Many of the newly elected are holding seats that, in any other year, would have swung to the left. To draw a new map and protect their hefty majorities, the GOP will likely have to take the pragmatic route—and that means leaving some of its newest members out in the redistricting cold.

How the legislature draws a legislative map plays a major role in determining who can win which seats. By manipulating districts to conform to certain groups of voters, one party can ensure its success. Normally, to manipulate the districts, the map either spreads out all of the like-minded voters, which diminishes their overall power. Alternatively, the map can lump all the like-minded voters together, so their views aren’t represented in any other districts. The Voting Rights Act prevents minority communities from getting divided and diluted, but there’s enormous gray within the law. The maps can give incredible advantages to one party or another. This year, however, it won’t be quite so easy.

“Republicans will be drawing districts that were safe from the 2008 electorate, not the 2010 electorate,” says Prof. Mike McDonald of George Mason University.  “The conditions that we saw in 2010 will not be repeated in 2012.” McDonald should know—he’s worked as an redistricting consultant or expert witness in six states. According to McDonald, the GOP would be wise to “protect what they have rather than trying to expand the majorities.”

In the Texas House, for instance, the GOP can likely draw a map protecting 80 or 85 seats without dabbling in legal gray areas. That leaves 16 incumbent Republicans fighting for their political lives. “They have too many freshmen that are sitting in what would otherwise be a competitive district,” McDonald says of such situations. The state House and Senate will have to determine where they’ll make protection plays and where they’ll simply let a seat go. But determining which folks to protect will likely get bloody fast. The new freshmen, part of the Tea Party movement, are golden children right now. Mess with them, and prepare to face a mobilized army of sign-holding, grassroots activists.  Still, many of them—like San Antonio’s John Garza and Lufkin’s James White—are unlikely to win re-election as their districts are currently drawn.

The last time redistricting debacles got bad, it was the Democrats who fled to Oklahoma. This time, the battle will likely stay within the Grand Old Party. But with no obvious answers, the fight should be fun to watch.