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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 12/ 7/2010

Georgia Democrats Barrow and Bishop confront an uncertain redistricting fate

By Aaron Blake

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This is the third 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 Georgia. (And make sure to check out the first two installments: Texas and Indiana.)

Reps. John Barrow and Sanford Bishop just survived one of the toughest environments for Georgia Democrats in their lifetimes.

The question now is whether they can survive redistricting.

Republicans control the state House, state Senate and the governor's mansion in the Peach State, giving them full power over the redistricting process and a chance to re-draw the districts that both Barrow and Bishop will have to run in in 2012.

The GOP has come within a hair of beating both of them in recent years. And after defeating Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) this year, Barrow and Bishop are the only logical targets remaining for Republicans.

With Marshall out, Republicans now control eight of the state's 13 congressional districts. Georgia is also likely to add a 14th district thanks to population growth, and Republicans are expected to have a relatively easy time creating a GOP-leaning district north of metropolitan Atlanta.

Of the five remaining Democratic districts, three of them are in heavily black -- and heavily Democratic -- areas of Atlanta. The GOP probably won't be able to do much with these districts, besides make small changes that would help nearby Republicans.

That leaves Barrow and Bishop. But taking them out won't be easy either -- especially in the case of Bishop.

Both come from seats that are close to half black; Barrow's district had a 44 percent African American population at last check, while Bishop's was 47.5 percent black. The districts technically aren't covered under the Voting Rights Act (since they don't include a majority of black voters), but they are so close to gaining that status that Democrats and black leaders could pressure Republicans to keep the black vote strong in those districts.

In a Republican dream scenario, they could try to draw both Barrow and Bishop tougher districts, by borrowing GOPers from strongly Republican districts held by Reps. Jack Kingston, Lynn Westmoreland and Paul Broun.

A more likely scenario, though, is that Republicans actually shore up Bishop, potentially turning his district into a majority-black district, and use the more Republican areas of his district to help shore up Rep.-elect Austin Scott (R), who just beat Marshall next door. Once they do that, they need to decide whether they want to go after Barrow.

The GOP could strengthen Bishop by moving the heavily black parts of Macon (from Scott's 8th district) and Valdosta (from Kingston's 1st district) into Bishop's 2nd district in the southwest.

(If you're unfamiliar with Georgia's counties, cities and congressional districts, check out this great map.)

Scott could be shored up by taking some of the more Republican parts of Kingston's and Bishop's districts, and/or taking on some of the growth in GOP-friendly areas of the Atlanta suburbs.

When it comes to Barrow's eastern 12th district, there are basically two ways for Republicans to make him more vulnerable. One is to move more of heavily Democratic Savannah into Kingston's district in the southeast; the other is to take more of heavily Democratic Augusta and move it into Broun's 10th district in the northeast.

But it won't be easy. The Cook Political Report's David Wasserman said Republicans might have to defend such a move in court, because it would dilute the black vote in Barrow's district.

"The easiest way to crack that district is to divide Savannah and Augusta, but you're asking for a lawsuit," Wasserman said.

The Supreme Court ruled last year that the Voting Rights Act doesn't require states to draw "crossover" districts, which are favorable to minority candidates even though minorities don't comprise more than half of the district. But much remains unsettled in this section of the law, and the court's decision doesn't necessarily mean Republicans have carte blanche to dismantle such a district.

Wasserman also pointed to another potential problem: the fact that Republicans, in a 2005 round of redistricting, were hesitant to weaken Kingston's district.

Kingston might have to take one for the team this time -- at least if the party wants to make further gains in the state. Using parts of his district to solidify the districts of Bishop and Scott means he would have to make up for the population loss elsewhere, and Savannah is the easiest answer.

Complicating matters on that front is that fact that Kingston is now the longest-serving Republican member of Congress from Georgia. Internal politics are important in this process, and if Kingston is unwilling to take on more of Savannah -- and, in so doing, make himself potentially more vulnerable to a Democratic challenge down the line -- things get complicated for Republicans.

Beyond Kingston's own lobbying efforts, Republicans might be hesitant change the map too much, for fear of spreading themselves overly thin. If they could draw a really safe district for Scott and keep two of four south Georgia districts (along with Kingston's seat), many GOP strategists would see that as a victory.

Redistricting expert Michael McDonald of George Mason University questioned how much incentive Republicans have to get too creative with the maps, given they now have their biggest House majority in 60 years.

"It's really going to come down to how safe Republicans feel nationally," McDonald said. "I would bet you if we were sitting in a world where Democrats had a really thin majority in the House, Republicans would roll the dice and split those districts."

The other major change on the map for this round of redistricting is the likely addition of a 14th district. The district is expected to be drawn using some combination of two fast-growing counties just north of Atlanta -- Cherokee and Forsyth.

In order to make room, though, a few changes will need to be made in the Atlanta area. Rep. Tom Price (R) could take on the more Republican areas of metro Atlanta -- Buckhead and Sandy Springs among them.

Rep. John Lewis (D) will likely look to pick up some black precincts from the other two Democrats in metro Atlanta, given that his district is close to losing its majority-black status.

To make up for their losses, Rep. David Scott (D) could pick up some of increasingly Democratic Henry County, while Rep. Hank Johnson (D) could add Democratic areas of Gwinnett County and Rockdale County -- thereby helping Republican Rep.-elect Rob Woodall get a friendlier district.

All in all, Georgia is one of a few big states where Republican control the process but could have difficulty drawing themselves a much better map. GOP strategists have to hope the state is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to the national re-drawing of congressional district lines.

By Aaron Blake  | December 7, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Mapping the Future, Redistricting  
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