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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 12/23/2010

Why the GOP's redistricting advantage is overstated

By Aaron Blake

Anyone who reads us -- as we assume that's everyone, right? -- knows that Republicans have a big advantage when it comes to redistricting, the decennial line-drawing process about to occur across the country.

After all, Republicans now control the redrawing of about four times as many congressional districts as Democrats do, and the U.S. Census on Tuesday moved six districts from blue states to red states due to population gains (and losses).

But is the GOP edge all it's cracked up to be? Will Republicans use this advantage to expand their soon-to-be House majority to untold new heights?

Probably not.

Let's start with the basics.

Republicans are in a much better place right now than Democrats. They've got a large House majority and they can draw nearly half of all 435 congressional districts. If you were a political party heading into redistricting, you would definitely prefer to be the GOP.

But having a big advantage doesn't necessarily mean Republicans will be able to expand their majority much beyond where it is now. In fact, they've got their work cut out for them in even keeping their current majorities in many states.

The Republican majority, which will be 47 seats when the new Congress is sworn in next month, will be bigger than at any point in the last 60 years. That means the party is already stretched pretty thin when it comes to the districts it holds.

Adding seats to that map is very difficult -- even in many of the states where Republicans control the redistricting process and will be drawing the lines.

For some good examples that too much of a good thing may not be wonderful for Republicans, let's look at the big states individually:

* Texas: The GOP's soon-to-be 23 to 9 majority in the House delegation is about as big as it can get, considering the number of legally protected majority-minority districts in this state. Even with the state adding four seats, two of those are likely to go to Hispanic Democrats, and Republicans will have a hard time protecting Rep.-elect Blake Farenthold (R) without sacrificing other opportunities. (Check out our analysis of redistricting in Texas here.)

* Pennsylvania: The GOP is similarly maxed out in the Keystone State, where it will hold 12 of 19 districts. Unlike the very conservative Texas, Pennsylvania is somewhere between a blue and purple state. The state will lose a seat, and Republicans should be able to draw Rep. Tim Holden (D) or Rep. Mark Critz (D) out of their districts. Gaining much beyond that could be difficult if they want to shore up Republicans in what are currently some pretty swingy districts.

* Ohio: Republicans control basically every marginal district in this state and hold a 13-to-5 majority in the delegation, but the state is slated to lose two congressional districts. The GOP may be able to force two Cleveland-area Democrats -- Reps. Betty Sutton and Dennis Kucinich, most likely -- into the same district, but the other lost district could very well be held by a Republican.

* Florida: Republicans currently hold a 19-to-6 majority -- an amazing advantage in what is otherwise a swing state. The state gains two seats and Republicans hope to add two GOP districts, but a newly passed ballot measure that seeks to prevent partisan redistricting is looming over the whole process. If the new law is enforceable, it could seriously compromise a very favorable map for Republicans.

These four states where Republicans control the redistricting process account for nearly half of the districts the party gets to redraw. And if you combine the four of them, the GOP would probably be lucky to come out 2012 with the same seat advantage it has now.

But those states aren't the only ones where expanding the map is difficult.

In the 17 states where Republicans will be redrawing the lines, they already have a majority of the congressional delegation in 16 of them. And when you add up all the seats in those 17 states, Republicans already hold nearly 70 percent of them. That's a very telling stat.

Put simply, after big gains this year in a lot of the very same states where they control redistricting, the number of opportunities for Republicans to expand the map is significantly reduced, unless they get very aggressive, which can always backfire and reduce rather than expand their House majorities by putting too many seats in a marginal category.

What's more, Democrats could add a handful of seats in Illinois -- the one big state where they control the entire process -- and potentially in Florida as well if the ballot measure winds up having some teeth. The Democratic gains in those two states alone, if they pan out, could offset much of the GOP gains elsewhere.

The Democrats also have a few other things going for them.

One is that a Democratic administration is overseeing the Justice Department for the first redistricting cycle since 1960. That alone should give the GOP pause when it comes to drawing maps that are too aggressive and may dilute districts created for racial minorities.

Two is a volatile electoral environment that has seen many districts that were drawn for one party eventually go to the other party. If you're a Republican incumbent, you want your district to be as safe as possible, because so many districts that were previously thought to be safe have flipped in the last three elections.

And three is that much of the population growth in states that are adding districts has been in blue areas -- a fact that complicates Republicans' ability to draw new GOP districts.

So what does it all mean? It means that Republicans, if they are smart, will focus on shoring up what they've got, rather than expanding the map.

They have a large majority now, and they've got lots of power over the redistricting process. If they use that power to make sure their current members are safe rather than expanding the map, they will have a much better shot at keeping their majority for election cycles to come.

If they start getting greedy, as politicians have been known to do, they risk losing big if yet another wave sweeps the country.

While the GOP's ability to add seats may be overblown, its ability to shore up its current members is not. And if the party plays its cards right, it will reap the benefits for years to come.

Just don't bank on Republicans adding 10 to 20 new GOP seats in the coming round of redistricting.

By Aaron Blake  | December 23, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Redistricting  
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