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Posted at 12:05 PM ET, 02/ 7/2011

Lots at stake for GOP in Pennsylvania redistricting

By Aaron Blake

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This is the 10th in an occasional series that focuses on the decennial redistricting process in key states. We call it "Mapping the Future". The series aims to look forward to how the maps in these states could be drawn and what the best and worst outcomes for each party might be. Today we take on Pennsylvania. (And make sure to check out the first nine installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, California, Nevada and Virginia)

Pennsylvania Republicans got greedy a decade ago when they drew new congressional districts -- and it came back to bite them as they watched a number of GOP-held seat go Democratic between 2002 and 2010.

The question is, will they be so aggressive again?

"Nobody has expressed any desire to get greedy," said one Republican close to the state's redistricting process. "2001 taught us a good lesson: You draw these districts marginally and you open yourself up to changing demographics."

For the second straight redistricting cycle, Republicans control the state legislature and governor's mansion and will be able to draw the new congressional district lines. Last time, in 2001, they tried to create a map on which they thought they could control as many as 13 or 14 of the state's 19 congressional districts.

But because they wanted to win so many seats, they left too many of their incumbents vulnerable, and by the 2008 election, Republicans controlled only seven of the 19 districts.

Big wins in 2010 mean Republicans are back on top and hold 12 districts in the Keystone State. But some Republicans say the lessons of 2001 have been learned, and priority number one in the 2011 round of redistricting will be to make sure their members are as safe as they can be.

Others, though, say it's time to go big again and that Republicans have a legitimate chance to hold more than just 12 seats. It's one of many choices that will be made in the coming months on a map that is very competitive right now.

Pennsylvania is losing one district this year, and there are two obvious options for Republicans as far as cutting down to 18 districts.

One is to draw Democratic Reps. Jason Altmire and Mark Critz into the same district in western Pennsylvania. The other is to try and dismantle Rep. Tim Holden's (D-Pa.) 17th district by dividing it amongst nearby Republicans.

The first option seems to be the more likely one for several reasons.

One is that the Pittsburgh area, where Altmire and Critz represent, has experienced more population loss than the rest of the state and would be easier to cut from.

The other is that Republicans tried to draw Holden out of Congress once before -- in 2001-- and it backfired. He beat Rep. George Gekas (R-Pa.) in the 2002 election and still holds a Republican-leaning district to this day -- one of the few Democrats who can say that.

That 2001 misfire is the cautionary tale that looms over this year's redistricting process. While there are arguably still ways to draw 13 or 14 Republican-leaning districts in Pennsylvania, many of them would lean so slightly toward Republicans that they would be susceptible to flipping Democratic in a bad year (read: 2006 and 2008).

An un-greedy Republican map would look something like this:

(Make sure to follow along on the congressional map here.)

Republicans draw together Altmire's 4th district and Critz's 12th district by combining the incumbents' homes in the northern Pittsburgh suburbs and Johnstown, respectively. Altmire's district remains largely the same except for extending an arm out east to Johnstown. The rest of Critz's district gets divided between three GOP districts -- Rep. Glenn Thompson's (R-Pa.) 5th district, Rep. Bill Shuster's 9th (R-Pa.), and Rep. Tim Murphy's (R-Pa.) 18th.

Holden, meanwhile, actually gets safer. His 17th district reaches up into Democratic-leaning Scranton in the northeast to make things a little easier for freshman Rep. Lou Barletta (R), who holds a pretty tenuous 11th district right now. (Barletta beat longtime Democratic Rep. Paul Kanjorski in 2010.)

By drawing as many Democrat-leaning voters as possible into Holden's district, other suburban Philadelphia Republicans in marginal districts nearby could benefit as well, including Reps. Jim Gerlach in the 6th, Charlie Dent in the 15th, Mike Fitzpatrick in the 8th and Pat Meehan in the 7th.

All four of those suburban Philadelphia districts are currently vulnerable, and none of them are likely to be completely safe after redistricting. President Obama won all four with at least 54 percent of the vote in 2008, and none of the four are likely to become districts that would have gone significantly for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The three other districts Republicans took over in 2010 are Rep. Mike Kelly's northwestern 3rd district, Rep. Tom Marino's northeastern 10th district and Barletta's Scranton-based 11th district.

Both Kelly's and Marino's districts are already pretty conservative (Kelly could use some GOP areas of Altmire's 4th district to get shored up), but Barletta needs help. By moving Scranton out of Barletta's 11th and into Holden's 17th district, shifting Marino's 10th district west and giving Barletta the northeastern corner of the state, Barletta could have a much safer district.

Marino is currently pretty safe, but he may actually be in favor of moving the disteict westward since he is from the very western edge of his vast district, near Williamsport, and would be right in the middle of the new district. Drawing Scranton out of Barletta's district, meanwhile, could have the helpful side effect of moving two potential 2012 opponents -- Lackawanna County Commissioner Corey O'Brien (D) and Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty (D) -- out of the district.

But Barletta is about the only one who can get a lot safer. Basically, there's only so much Republicans can shore up the rest of their members since Pennsylvania remains a Democratic state at the presidential level.

"Naturally, they are going to have a number of competitive districts there regardless," said Tom Bonier, who leads Democrats' redistricting efforts at the National Committee for an Effective Congress. "There are a lot of swing voters who will vote Democratic in one election and Republican the next."

Incumbents -- ever mindful of their own reelection prospects -- will likely be pushing for a map along the lines, literally, we laid about above.

But not everyone would be happy with that. Longtime Republican consultant Chris Nicholas says it's not a matter of choosing between taking out Holden, Critz and Altmire. He thinks Republicans can try to get all three.

"There's no reason why, at the federal level, we can't do a lot of these things," Nicholas said. "I reject the notion that you can only pick one."

Nicholas argued that altering Holden's district to carve out his strongest areas could give the GOP another shot to take him out. Since his district is already GOP-leaning, it wouldn't require adding too many Republicans to nearby districts.

But it would make the task of shoring up Barletta and the suburban Philadelphia Republicans more difficult, and that may be a tough pill to swallow after the experience of 2001.

Pennsylvania is one of many states where Republicans control the redistricting process but are close to maxed out in terms of the number of districts they control. (Other states in that same boat include Florida, Ohio and Texas. Make sure to check out our redistricting recaps of Ohio and Texas).

The Republicans' plan of attack -- safe or aggressive? -- in all four of these big states will have a major impact on the partisan control of Congress over the next decade.

By Aaron Blake  | February 7, 2011; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  Mapping the Future, Redistricting  
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