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Don’t Blame Gerrymandering for GOP Civil War

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 29: Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Some believe that Boehner’s run as speaker was a victim of redistricting, but that’s not the whole story. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Blame the earmark ban or Republican leaders. Blame Ted Cruz or even Justin Bieber. But don’t blame gerrymandering for the fighting in the House.

As Republicans labor through replacing Speaker John A. Boehner, bemoaning redistricting has become a common refrain in explaining the GOP civil war.

“The very strategy that cemented the party’s House majority also entrenched the rump faction of anti-government extremists who toppled Boehner and will menace his successor,” wrote former New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Hedrick Smith earlier this month in the Los Angeles Times. “So sharply targeted was the 2011 gerrymandering effort that all but two of the 45 anti-Boehner rebels — most of them now organized as the Freedom Caucus — are guaranteed reelection in politically engineered districts that insulate them from Democratic challengers.”

While that sounds like a reasonable explanation, it misses the point on how party strategists draw lines.

The goal of an effective gerrymander is to maximize party gains over a sustained period of time, but that often means creating less safe districts, both in quantity and party performance. Party strategists intentionally dilute their own party’s vote in order distribute their voters across a larger number of districts.

For example, in North Carolina, Republican cartographers decreased Arizona Sen. John McCain’s share of the 2008 presidential vote in eight of the state’s 13 districts when they redrew the lines following the 2010 census.

More specifically, Republicans reduced McCain’s percentage of the vote from 63 percent to 57 percent in House Majority Whip Patrick McHenry’s 10th District in order to help the party take over then-Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler’s neighboring 11th District. House Freedom Caucus member Mark Meadows now represents that western North Carolina district, which gave McCain 58 percent.

Before the latest round of redistricting, there were four districts in North Carolina where McCain received more than 60 percent. After Republicans redrew the map, McCain’s percentage was 58 percent or less in all of them. Many of them are still firmly Republican, but the elections are not coronations, as Smith and others are suggesting.

Republicans also redrew the map in Pennsylvania, but, once again, made some districts more vulnerable (Joseph Pitts’ 16th, for example) in order to increase the GOP percentages elsewhere. Republicans increased the GOP performance in the 6th, 7th and 8th districts, but McCain still didn’t reach 49 percent in any of them. Overall, Republicans drew just two districts with a McCain percentage greater than 55 percent.

Northeast Ohio Media Group editorial board member Thomas Suddes sounded a similar theme to Smith in his own piece, “A key to John Boehner’s downfall — the gerrymandering he championed,” for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“With protected political monopolies back home, the rebels take little or no political risk and pay no political price for opposing their speaker and adopting extremist positions that bring Congress to a halt,” argued Suddes. “Perhaps public shock over Boehner’s downfall will give new impetus to a long-overdue reform movement. Otherwise, these insurgencies will continue to shackle American democracy.”

But there is no guarantee that taking map-drawing responsibilities out of partisan hands will result in more moderate members. Four out of five Republican members of the Arizona delegation are part of the House Freedom Caucus, even though the state’s lines were drawn by an independent redistricting commission. In Iowa, congressional lines are drawn by a nonpartisan agency, yet freshman GOP Rep. Rob Blum is part of the Freedom Caucus and Rep. Steve King is regarded as one of the chamber’s most conservative members.

As Suddes pointed out, most House seats are filled not in November general elections but in Republican or Democratic primaries by voters on the edges of the ideological spectrum. But that has at least as much, if not more, to do with sorting — people living in proximity to like-minded people — than partisan redistricting.

You can read journalist Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart” for more on that theory.

Complaints about partisan redistricting often have more to do about proportions (how many seats a party controls based on the partisanship of the state) rather than the partisanship of individual districts.

Suddes called the Ohio map “laughable” because of the shape of some of the districts and because Republicans control 75 percent of the state’s seats. (I wonder if he has an issue with Democrats drawing Republicans completely out of delegations in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but I digress.)

What Republicans didn’t do in Ohio was draw a bevy of safe districts, considering 10 of their 12 seats had a McCain percentage of 54 percent or less. And McCain won seven of those seats with 52 percent or less. Those are winnable districts. President Barack Obama’s unpopularity in pockets of the state and Democratic recruitment troubles have contributed to the lack of competitive races in recent cycles.

There is no question Republicans took advantage of their legislative majorities to draw redraw congressional maps to boost their House majority. And the party may be suffering from expectations of that large majority. But it’s important to understand that maximizing gains through redistricting means drawing less safe districts, not more. And there are a number of factors that help explain the infighting on the Republican side beyond partisan map drawing.

Correction 4:33 p.m.

An earlier version of this post misstated John McCain’s performance in Charlie Dent’s 15th District in the 2008 presidential election.


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