Will Redistricting Be Determinative in 2022?

Over the last two weeks, this column has focused more on the macro-political, 40,000-foot view of the forces that could tilt the partisan playing field in one direction or the other going into 2022. On a somewhat less cosmic level, another way of looking at the race for the House concerns the “Four Re’s” of redistricting, retirements, recruiting, and recriminations.

On the matter of redistricting, Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman’s take is that “Republicans might reasonably expect to net between zero to ten seats from new maps. In other words, they could gain all six seats they need for House control from reapportionment and redistricting alone.” It’s important to note here that Wasserman did not predict that redistricting would cost Democrats their majority or that Democrats would lose control of the House for any reason.

But by Wasserman’s count, ten years ago, Republicans controlled the redistricting process in states with 219 congressional districts, one more than the barest possible majority of 218. This time it looks like the GOP is in charge in states with 188 districts. A decade ago, Democrats were in charge in states with 44 seats a decade ago; they’ll oversee 73 seats’ worth this time. Independent commissions or courts ended up drawing the boundaries in 88 districts last time, but that’s up to 122 this time around. Seven districts are at-large, and therefore unaffected by the redistricting process.

Wasserman is now methodically plowing through and reporting the prospects in each of the 43 states that will be redrawing lines. The factors at play: which areas in states are either growing or losing population, the political forces at play, and who the dominant players are in each state’s line-drawing.

The bottom line today is that Republicans had a huge advantage in terms of being able to draw the lines ten years ago; this time it is merely a big advantage. The 2010 Obama first-term midterm election was a disaster for Democrats on the gubernatorial and state legislative level, putting them at an enormous disadvantage in the map-making process. They have reclaimed only a modest share since, capped off by disappointing elections in 2018 and 2020.

Of course, with the Census Bureau now saying that they will not be able to send the numbers that states need to draw the maps until September, there is even more uncertainty than normal this time.

The second “Re” is retirements, which isn’t completely unrelated to redistricting because it is not at all uncommon for members to see an unfavorable map unfolding and simply decide that they no longer have the fight in them to deal with a very different or changing district. The political winds will also make a huge difference: if many incumbents decide that their side is unlikely to prevail, that usually drives retirements.

The open seats created by retirements leads us to the third element: recruiting. That is, how well will each party do in attracting strong challengers and open-seat candidates? The better a party’s national prospects look heading into an election, the easier it is to convince strong candidates to run; the more adverse the situation appears, the tougher the sell is for party committees. (Of course, some years start off looking very challenging, but turn surprisingly well, as Republicans discovered in 2020. Democrats, on the other hand, found out what it was like for an election cycle to start out favorably but then turn south at the end.)

Finally, there are the recriminations, the kind of intra-party strife that can ripple the political landscape. In this particular cycle it could be supporters of former President Trump seeking vengeance against any House GOP members who voted for seating electors in states Biden carried or, God forbid, voted for impeachment. The party base could look to punish those who voted to evict Marjorie Taylor Greene from her committee assignments, or other acts of heresy.

On the Democratic side, it could be progressive challengers and activists seeking to unseat not-sufficiently-progressive incumbents.

Ideological litmus tests are certainly not unheard of on either side. It’s just that in 2022, rancor on the Democratic side is more likely to be on grounds of policy and ideological purity. For Republicans, it will be on grounds of loyalty—or apostasy.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on February 26, 2021.