House: All Eyes on the Texas Case
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has heard oral arguments on the Texas congressional redistricting case, partisans on both sides are waiting expectantly for the justices' decision, which could influence the fight for control come November.
Early returns don't appear promising for Democrats, as The Washington Post's own Charles Lane reported this morning that the "justices seemed likely to let stand all or most of [Texas Rep. Tom] DeLay's handiwork." The New York Times drew a similar conclusion in its story, saying, "It appeared unlikely by the end of the intense two-hour argument that a majority of the court would overturn the 2003 redistricting plan, or any other plan, for that matter, as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander."
In a post-argument briefing yesterday organized by the Lone Star Project, Paul Smith, who argued the plaintiffs' challenge to the Texas map, had a different take. "They are going to find some kind of way to throw this map out," Smith said to an audience that included three former Texas lawmakers who lost their seats in 2004 in part due to the new congressional map. "I am reasonably hopeful for a positive outcome," he said
If Texas Republicans had not redrawn their state's congressional lines in 2003, it's likely that Democrats would have as many as five or six additional members in the U.S. House. The map helped defeat Reps. Martin Frost, Max Sandlin, Ken Bentsen, Nick Lampson, Charlie Stenholm and Chris Bell. It also provided the impetus for Rep. Ralph Hall to switch parties and Rep. Jim Turner to retire. Without their gains in Texas, House Republicans would not have picked up seats in the 2004 election.
If, as expected, the Supreme Court makes minor changes to the Texas map rather than invalidating the entirety of it, Democrats will continue to face a tough task in picking up the 15 seats they need this fall to reclaim a majority. If the lines remain essentially unchanged, only two races in the state are likely to be competitive -- the reelection contests of DeLay in the 22nd District and Democrat Chet Edwards in the 17th District.
DeLay's ongoing legal problems have created a dangerous political environment for him in the Houston-area district he has held since 1984. Edwards was the only one of the Democrats targeted in the GOP-led redistricting to survive the 2004 election, and Republicans are again targeting him.
What happens if the Texas map gets thrown out altogether? Recent history would provide Democrats with a glimmer of hope. In June 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that three districts in Texas had been crafted with a too-singular focus on race. Two months later a federal court -- in response to the higher court's ruling -- redrew 13 of the 30 districts despite the fact that primaries had already occurred based on the old map. The primary results were discarded, and special November elections were called in the affected districts. If no candidate received 50 percent in November, runoffs were held in December.
If that happened again, Democrats would at least have a shot at reclaiming a handful of Texas seats that are not considered competitive in 2006.
For a fun look at yesterday's court hearing, read Dana Milbank's Washington Sketch: The Justices Look at Some Shapely ... Congressional Districts.
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