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Mapping the Future: GOP will draw map in Texas, but gaining seats difficult

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This is the first 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 Texas.

Republicans have a massive advantage when it comes to control over the coming redistricting process. But after their equally large gains in the House earlier this month, adding winnable districts to the map isn't quite so easy.

Case in point: Texas.

Texas is the biggest state where Republicans hold the governor's mansion and both chambers of the state legislature, a trifecta that allows them total control of the redistricting process.

And, the Lone Star State is set to add three or four seats to its current 32, meaning that the district lines drawn next year will pave the way for at least three or four new members of Congress.

All of that suggests plenty of opportunity for Republicans to add to their ranks.

But it's not that simple. In fact, Republicans acknowledge that the realities of the current map and the Voting Rights Act mean all but one -- or maybe two -- of those new seats are likely to be Democratic-leaning districts where Hispanics hold the majority. And Republican efforts to shore up the their current members could prove difficult in a few key cases.

The question for Texas Republicans, says redistricting expert Michael McDonald of George Mason University, is how aggressive they want to be in adding districts where they have a legitimate chance at victory, and how much they want to shore up their current members.

"Republicans will likely be locking in their gains rather than expanding the map dramatically," McDonald said. "They don't want to get into a legal battle, because that could unravel their map."

Translation: Republicans are unlikely to grow their advantage in the state's congressional delegation, even though they will have total control of the line-drawing process.

Here's why.

Should Republican Blake Farenthold hold his lead on Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) after a recount, Republicans will hold 23 of the state's 32 congressional districts. The remaining Democratic-held districts are all pretty blue, making it hard alter them and make them winnable for Republicans.

(Remember that Texas was the sight of a re-redistricting led by then Rep. Tom DeLay in the middle of the last decade that led to the defeat of the likes of Max Sandlin, Martin Frost and Charlie Stenholm -- all Democrats representing swing territory.)

That means any GOP gains are likely going to have to come from the new districts the state is gaining. The problem for Republicans is that the vast majority of the population growth that has occurred over the last decade in Texas has been minority populations -- mostly Hispanics -- who tend to vote Democratic.

The Voting Rights Act requires that there must be a "majority-minority" district -- one that includes a majority of non-whites -- in any area where a "reasonably compact" district can be drawn. And don't forget: the enforcement of this rule will be done by a Democratic-led Justice Department, unlike the last round.

The major population growth has occurred mostly in the three major metropolitan areas: Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Two of the state's four new districts are likely to be majority-minority seats in these areas while a third could come in heavily Hispanic South Texas.

Republicans are likely to be able to draw at least one additional GOP district, probably somewhere south of Dallas and north of San Antonio -- an area that has also experienced significant population growth.

(A great map of which districts have gained or lost population since 2000 can be found here, courtesy of the Texas Legislative Council.)

Complicating matters somewhat for the GOP are the elections of Farenthold and Rep.-elect Quico Canseco (R), who both appear to have won majority Hispanic districts earlier this month. Normally, Republicans would look to shore up members representing such tough districts, but moving the lines in either Farenthold's Corpus Christi-based district or Canseco's district along the Rio Grande could prove difficult, as both are protected under the Voting Rights Act, which makes it much more difficult to shrink the minority vote in any way.

And when it comes down to it, Canseco and Farenthold would be low-ranking freshman members who establishment Republicans weren't all that high on the begin with, so it's unlikely the party would go to great lengths to save them.

Who might Republican line-drawers spend their time shoring up?

Rep. Pete Sessions's (R-Texas) Dallas district has trended more and more Democratic in recent years and is now less than 45 percent white. An easy fix would be for the GOP to pull the heavily minority precincts out of Sessions' district and add them to new a majority-Hispanic district, thereby giving him a safer district.

Republicans could try to do the same with Reps. John Culberson (R) and Michael McCaul (R) in the Houston area. Both have been targeted by Democrats in recent years, and their districts have added more than 300,000 people to their populations since the last census, which means changes will need to be made. Look for a potential majority-minority district to be created, moving Culberson and McCaul into more Republican areas.

Canseco's district is the biggest in the state, stretching all the way from the Rio Grande Valley at the very southern tip of Texas to the El Paso area in the west. But most of the population comes from the GOP-leaning San Antonio suburbs in Bexar County. Republicans could add a new majority-minority district south of San Antonio and then try to create a friendlier district for Canseco by giving him more of Bexar County and handing the more rural, Hispanic parts of his district to Rep. Henry Cuellar (D).

That new South Texas district could also help Farenthold by allowing him to reach up the Gulf Coast into more GOP friendly areas, while also drawing in the more Republican areas of Rep. Ruben Hinojosa's (D) district to the west.

But by doing either or both, Republicans might be diluting two majority-minority districts and not creating enough new ones to make up for it. Given the Hispanic population growth in the area, Democrats could have a case that the minority vote is being undercut.

Though most areas of the state have experienced population growth, there are a few that have lost population. North Texas districts held by Reps. Mac Thornberry (R) and Randy Neugebauer (R) will have to grow a bit, but there is more than enough growth in Rep. Kay Granger's (R) district west of Dallas to give to those two members and keep them on safe political ground.

When redistricting comes, there is often the question of retirements as well. Rep. Ralph Hall (R) is the oldest member of Congress, at 87, and his district will need to shrink after gaining more than 100,000 people. Nearby Rep. Sam Johnson (R), who isn't far behind at 80, saw his district grow even more than that.

Longtime incumbents generally don't like their districts to be touched (unless they're made safer), so any retirements could free up some areas for a more (ahem) creative gerrymander.

All of it adds up to one of the most uncertain redistricting rounds in the country, and also one of the most vital. Legal action is a foregone conclusion.

"I think it's inevitable," said election lawyer Gerald Hebert, who represented Texas Democrats in their battle against DeLay's 2003 redistricting plan. "The stakes are too high to avoid fighting for every district."

By Aaron Blake  | November 18, 2010; 11:03 AM ET
Categories:  Mapping the Future, Redistricting  
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