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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 03/ 9/2011

As budget battle rages in Wisconsin, a tough round of redistricting looms for GOP

By Aaron Blake


This is the 14th 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 Wisconsin. (And make sure to check out the first 13 installments: Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, California, Nevada, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Utah and North Carolina.)

As state legislators are facing recalls in Wisconsin, the state's congressional delegation also has much to be concerned about in the coming months.

Many, if not most, of the state's congressional districts are generally considered "swing" districts, and we've seen a number of them change hands or be seriously contested in recent years.

Republicans control the redistricting process after their big rout in 2010 -- which included stealing the state's two rural northern districts -- but the limitations of the map make it hard for the GOP to expand on its current five-to-three majority in a swing state like Wisconsin.

What that means is the state could be competitive for years to come, and GOP freshman Reps. Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble may have to fight for their seats repeatedly over the next decade.

That said, there are certain things the GOP-led state legislature can do to shore up Duffy -- who really needs it -- and to a lesser extent, Ribble. But as they do so, they will need to be mindful of their prospects in other districts.

After failing to unseat Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) in 2010, the GOP continues to hold out hope that it can do so in the coming years. (The seat also may come open as Kind is regularly mentioned as a potential statewide candidate.) And meanwhile, Republican Reps. Tom Petri and Paul Ryan represent marginal districts that could be vulnerable if they leave them at any point over the next decade.

Republicans could shore up Duffy, Ribble and Ryan, but it would probably mean making Petri's and Kind's districts more Democratic. In other words, it's going to be difficult to make this a map on which Republicans can hold any more than the five seats they currently hold.

First, though, the big one: Duffy's seat.

This district leans slightly Democratic and went 56 percent for President Obama in 2008. Long held by Democratic Rep. David Obey, it's shown a willingness to vote consistently for Democrats.

If Republicans really want to shore up Duffy's 7th district, it probably comes at the expense of improving their chances to win in Kind's southwestern 3rd district and Petri's central 6th district.

(To keep track of all the districts, be sure to check out the congressional map here.)

The GOP could move some Democratic parts of Duffy's district in Chippewa County (near Eau Claire) into Kind's district, while Duffy picks up GOP-leaning St. Croix County across the border from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. But again, that makes Kind safer.

Republicans could also move Democratic-leaning Wood County and Portage County in the southeastern part of Duffy's district into Kind's district and/or Petri's district. That's not a great option either, though, as Petri's district went for Obama in 2008 and would become more Democratic -- a concern given that Petri is 70 years old and may not serve through the next decade.

Any help for Ribble in the 8th district would also have to come at Petri's expense. The GOP could move Green Bay into Petri's district, which would be a help to Ribble but would lead to a significant reorganization of the map.

Since Green Bay borders Lake Michigan, that would mean the peninsula that includes Kewaunee County and Door County would be cut off from Ribble's district and likely have to move as well. There aren't many voters in those two counties -- about 20,000 people voted in the two in the 2010 governor's race -- but Ribble, whose district is under-populated right now, would have to add territory elsewhere, and Republican areas are at a premium in the central part of the state.

The more likely scenario would be for Ribble to keep his district basically as-is. The district went 54 percent for Obama in 2008, but it also went 55 percent for President Bush in 2004, when the national vote was more evenly split.

(Indeed, Obama over-performed in Wisconsin even more than other states, winning seven of eight congressional districts. if he comes close to replicating that in 2012, the GOP's congressional delegation could face some tough races no matter what the lines looks like.)

If the GOP does fiddle with Petri's district, they could make up for it by giving him some of strongly Republican Washington County from Rep. James Sensenbrenner's (R) suburban Milwaukee 5th district. Sensenbrenner has easily the most conservative district in the state, so he could do more than anybody else to help out his GOP colleagues. But as the longest serving member of the delegation, he also has clout and would have to agree to taking on a less-favorable district.

Sensenbrenner's district could also be valuable in shoring up Ryan in the southeastern 1st district. Ryan didn't get much help in the last round of redistricting, and his district went 51 percent for Obama in 2008. Though he can probably hold the seat in his own right, he's seen as a rising star who could run statewide at some point, and the seat would be instantly competitive if he vacates it.

Adding strongly Republican Waukesha County from Sensenbrenner's district would help Ryan's district, but Sensenbrenner would likely have to pick up swing voters in southern Milwaukee County to make up for the population loss. And again, he would likely have to sign off on the changes.

Moving some of Janesville from Ryan's district to Rep. Tammy Baldwin's (D) Madison-based 2nd district would also help in the 1st district, but you can only move so much of it, since Ryan is from Janesville. And again, it would force changes to Sensenbrenner's district; he would likely have to add some of Jefferson County from Baldwin's district).

In exchange for helping out his colleagues, Sensenbrenner could give away a few Democratic-leaning Milwaukee County suburbs to Rep. Gwen Moore's (D) urban 4th district, which will need to pick up population.

Overall, though, Wisconsin is another state where Republicans may be content to shore up the gains they made in 2010. Going after another district -- most likely Kind's -- could come at the expense of their 2010 gains, and a significant reorganization of the map may hurt Republicans in the long haul.

"I don't see huge changes in Wisconsin even though Republicans are in control," said Dave Wasserman, a redistricting expert at the Cook Political Report. "They have a difficult balancing act in the northern part of the state. If they strengthen their hand in either the 3rd, 7th, or 8th, they are weakening their hand in one of them too."

By Aaron Blake  | March 9, 2011; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Mapping the Future, Redistricting  
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