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2022 House takeover lists should come with big asterisks

A look at 2011 shows how much redistricting can alter the landscape

Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot is on the Democrats’ target list for 2022. He was on a similar list a decade ago.
Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot is on the Democrats’ target list for 2022. He was on a similar list a decade ago. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Projecting races and results 20 months from an election can be a risky proposition in a normal cycle. Add in the extra layer of uncertainty with redistricting and it’s hard to take any projections about individual races in 2022 very seriously right now. 

A look back at House Democrats’ list of takeover targets from 10 years ago during the last round of redistricting, however, shows that even without knowing the new congressional lines and district numbers, some vulnerable incumbents will likely remain that way until Election Day. 

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released its list of 21 Republican incumbents targeted for defeat in 2022. Democrats don’t have a lot of room for error, considering Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to retake the majority and the president’s party, on average, loses more than two dozen House seats in midterm elections.

That’s a different situation from the 2012 cycle, the last time the entire country went through reapportionment and redistricting. Republicans had just recaptured the House majority in the 2010 midterms and Democrats needed to gain a couple of dozen seats with President Barack Obama seeking a second term.

Even though the scenarios aren’t completely analogous, a look back can be helpful to remember the evolution of target lists in a redistricting cycle.

In early 2011, Democrats unveiled their “Drive to 25” campaign, including targeted ads against 19 Republican incumbents, despite not knowing what the congressional districts would even look like as the redistricting process was just getting started.

In the end, the initial list was feast or famine for Democrats. The party defeated eight of those 19 incumbents while 11 of them won reelection, including seven in races that weren’t even rated as competitive by The Rothenberg Political Report by the end of the election. 

Mission accomplished

Some of the GOP incumbents were essentially forced to run in dramatically different districts, often hurting their chances. 

In Florida, Rep. Allen B. West ran in the newly drawn 18th District, where the presidential partisanship wasn’t different from the district he won initially. But more than three-quarters of the voters were new to him, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections, and he lost to Democrat Patrick Murphy.

Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh ran in a newly redrawn 8th District, configured by Democrats, where Obama’s 2008 winning margin went from 13 points to 25 points and in which three-quarters of the district was new to Walsh, pushing Democrat Tammy Duckworth easily over the line. Also in Illinois, Democrats gave GOP Rep. Robert J. Dold nearly 40 percent new territory in the 10th District, on top of Obama winning it handily, leading to Dold’s defeat to Democrat Brad Schneider. “The worst part was that they took out the areas where I overperformed,” Dold recalled Thursday.

Other Republicans benefited from new territory. Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold ran in the 27th District, which Republicans redrew from a seat Obama won by 7 points to one John McCain would have carried by 19 points. Farenthold’s race wasn’t even considered competitive by Election Day 2012. 

In Pennsylvania, Lou Barletta ran in the newly redrawn 11th District where he had to introduce himself to more than half of the voters. But Republicans reconfigured it from a seat Obama won by 15 points to one McCain would have won by 5 points. 

Some districts didn’t change as dramatically, but it was still enough to doom the GOP incumbent. Democrat Joe Garcia defeated embattled GOP Rep. David Rivera in Florida’s 26th District. In New York, Democrat Dan Maffei defeated Rep. Anne Marie Buerkle in the 24th District and Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney (the current DCCC chairman) knocked off Rep. Nan Hayworth in the new 18th District. Both were renumbered districts in which about one-quarter of residents were not previously represented by the incumbents.

Some districts hardly changed at all. For example, Democrat Ann McLane Kuster defeated GOP Rep. Charlie Bass in New Hampshire’s 2nd and Democratic-Farmer-Labor nominee Rick Nolan unseated Rep. Chip Cravaack in Minnesota’s 8th; both seats were largely the same as what they’d been the previous decade.

The survivors

Four of the targeted Republicans won reelection, including two with ties to this year’s DCCC list. 

In 2011, Democrats included Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot on their initial target list, in large part because Obama carried his 1st District by 11 points in 2008. After the redistricting process, Chabot had to introduce himself to more than a third of voters in the newly redrawn seat, but it was also significantly more Republican. McCain would have carried the new district by 5 points over Obama. Chabot won reelection in 2012 (and the four elections after that), but finds himself on the DCCC list once again. 

A decade ago, Democrats had their eye on Pennsylvania Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick in a suburban Philadelphia seat that Obama won by 9 points in 2008. The 8th District didn’t change a lot during redistricting (just 11 percent was new and the presidential results only changed slightly), but Fitzpatrick won reelection in 2012 and again two years later. In 2016, his brother Brian succeeded him and is now on the Democrats’ initial list. 

While some vulnerable incumbents will remain on takeover target lists for the duration of the cycle, redistricting can be a life preserver from or an accelerant to reelection defeat.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

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