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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 11/23/2010

Democrats confront near-extinction in Indiana

By Aaron Blake


This is the second 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 Indiana. (And make sure to check out the first installment: Texas.)

Rep. Joe Donnelly was one of the cardiac kids on Nov. 2 -- a real survivor in a very tough race. But the Indiana Democrat's toughest campaign is probably ahead of him.

That's because while Donnelly was winning reelection by a narrow margin over state Rep. Jackie Walorski (R), his fellow Indiana Democrats were getting destroyed. Just two years after the state shocked the political world by supporting President Obama, it has returned to its red roots, Republicans control redistricting, and Donnelly might pay the price by getting drawn out of a home.

Indiana Democrats had five of the state's nine congressional districts this cycle. They lost two of them in the election, and now Republicans have the power to yank at least one more seat thanks to their control of the drawing of new districts.

With the state very likely to keep its current total of nine districts, priority No. 1 for Republicans will be shoring up a pair of southern Indiana districts that have given them trouble in recent years -- the ones just taken from Democrats by GOP Reps.-elect Larry Bucshon and Todd Young. Beyond that, though, Donnelly is squarely in the crosshairs.

All three of those districts were made Democrat-friendly when that party controlled redistricting in 2001. They drew more liberal areas into all three, adding Terre Haute into what will now be Bucshon's district and Bloomington into what will now be Young's. They also moved Michigan City and Kokomo -- where Obama happens to be today -- into what became Donnelly's district in the north. (Here's a great congressional district map with all the counties and key cities on it, to help you keep track.)

Republicans can now undo those changes and move to shore up Bucshon and Young. The question is whether they want to go further than that.

By adding all of Michigan City back to Rep. Pete Visclosky's (D) district, they would be making Donnelly's seat more winnable but still very competitive. If they really want to push the envelope, though, they could try to stretch the district further east, incorporating its current base in Gary with Michigan City and, further east, South Bend. South Bend, as at happens, is Donnelly's base.

Donnelly would effectively be left with a choice between running for reelection or challenging Visclosky in a primary.

Republicans could make Donnelly's current district pretty uninhabitable by borrowing heavily Republican Elkhart and Kosciusko counties from the neighboring 3rd district and using them to replace the population from Michigan City/South Bend.

A Democratic strategist who does a lot of work in Indiana said Donnelly will likely run wherever South Bend is.

"South Bend is his base, and St. Joe is his home, and if they did that, I would guess that's where he would run, though I'm sure he would take a hard look at the new 2nd district as well," the source said.

It's not yet clear whether Republicans could draw such a map or whether Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) would approve it. Daniels has hinted that he wouldn't approve an overly ambitious gerrymander, which may give Republicans pause in pushing things too far.

The other area where Republicans could expand their ranks is even more unlikely. They could, in theory, divide up Rep. Andre Carson's (D-Ind.) Indianapolis-based 7th district among the three GOP districts emanating from the Indianapolis suburbs -- the 4th, 5th and 6th districts.

But there are a few problems with this. One is that, even though the district is not majority black and not protected by the Voting Rights Act, there is a heavy black population that has elected an African-American member of Congress. Redistricting the state's lone black congressman out of office could lead to a backlash and be a PR nightmare for Republicans.

The other risk is that the GOP would be diluting its vote in any of the three districts surrounding Indianapolis. They're pretty safe right now, but adding large new populations could change that, and the members likely wouldn't be too happy about taking on so much Democratic territory.

Speaking of keeping their current members happy -- shoring up Bucshon and Young is doable, but it's not terribly easy.

That's because it's basically impossible to get rid of Evansville from Bucshon's district, and besides getting rid of Terre Haute, the district would likely be adding GOP territory from Young's district, which would have to be replaced elsewhere.

Young, meanwhile, will want to get rid of some of the more liberal precincts in Bloomington. But that's also his hometown, so he'll probably want to keep some as well. In order to make up for population lost in Bloomington and the counties transferred west to Bucshon's district, Young would probably have to take on some counties close to Cincinnati, which would make his district span the Indianapolis, Louisville and Cincinnati media markets, making for a very expensive district for Democrats to go after.

If Republicans could find a way to do it all successfully, though, they could effectively reduce the number of Democratic seats in the state to one or two out of nine -- a very strong gerrymander in a state that, as we've mentioned, went for Obama in 2008.

Given how aggressive Democrats were in 2001, turnabout could be fair play now that Republicans are in charge, noted David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

"This is very aggressive map," Wasserman said, noting that "in 2001, had Republicans been in control, they might have broken up the 7th district in Indianapolis."

Republicans have lots of flexibility with the congressional map, given that four of their six seats will be held by freshmen who don't necessarily have lots of clout with party leaders. (It's interesting to note that one of the freshmen, Rep.-elect Todd Rokita, as secretary of state actually clashed with the state legislature over gerrymandering).

Beyond those four members, the other two GOPers -- Reps. Mike Pence and Dan Burton -- are considered potential retirees. Pence is weighing a presidential or gubernatorial campaign, while Burton is getting on in age and has faced some very tough primaries in recent years. If either or both of them step aside, it would give the GOP license to really mess with the new district lines.

As we discussed last week when we dissected Texas, there are states where the GOP is already stretched so far that adding new winnable districts will be difficult. Indiana will not be one of them.

By Aaron Blake  | November 23, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Mapping the Future, Redistricting  
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