Slicing up Liberal Cities Becomes Go-To Redistricting Strategy

By: - September 22, 2021 12:00 am

Democratic state Rep. Kara Eastman campaigns for Congress in Omaha, Nebraska, one of several cities where Republicans are considering splitting up liberal areas during redistricting to bolster GOP power. Nati Harnik/The Associated Press

As Democrats and Republicans duel over redistricting, line-drawers in more states are carving cities into multiple districts for political gain.

Republican lawmakers in conservative states have long sliced left-leaning college towns, such as Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; and Athens, Georgia, into pieces. Then they combine those smaller chunks with conservative areas to produce mostly Republican congressional districts.

Now, as booming economies attract more Democratic newcomers to cities such as Louisville, Nashville and Omaha, GOP lawmakers in Kentucky, Tennessee and Nebraska are mulling the same strategy.

Republicans need to flip as few as five seats to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022, a goal states could accomplish with redistricting alone, according to a University of Virginia Center for Politics report released in May.

In Oregon, it’s Democrats who are seeking to splinter liberal Portland. Democrats want to spread the city’s voters into multiple congressional districts in an attempt to make sure five of the state’s six congressional districts will be Democratic. Republicans want to keep the city intact.

“It’s the Dems who want to rip the city to pieces,” said Gail Gitcho, a spokesperson for the National Republican Redistricting Trust.

For the most part, however, the city-splitting strategy is being employed by Republicans seeking to dilute the political power of liberal cities.

Five of the nine U.S. cities divided into five or more congressional districts are in Texas—Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. But Republicans who control the legislature in that state want to go even further this redistricting cycle, because the census gave Texas two additional congressional seats. The GOP wants to claim both.

Austin is the only U.S. city of less than a million residents that is cut up into six congressional districts. Fort Worth, with about 919,000 residents, is split among five districts. Houston’s 2.3 million residents are divided into nine congressional districts, Dallas has seven for its 1.3 million residents and San Antonio has five for its 1.4 million residents, according to data from the Missouri Census Data Center’s Geographic Correspondence Engine website.

A six-way split for a city such as Austin, which has about 962,000 people, is extreme considering that the average congressional district nationwide will have about 761,000 people after redistricting this year, up from 711,000 after the 2010 census.

Nebraska’s congressional redistricting could have implications for the 2024 presidential election, because each of the state’s three districts has its own electoral college vote. The Omaha-area vote last year went to President Joe Biden despite former President Donald Trump winning the state.

“They want to find a way to make sure that will never happen again,” William Forsee, a high school teacher who represented the Omaha-area district as a presidential elector in 2008, said during a public hearing earlier this month. In 2008, Forsee cast his electoral vote for Barack Obama, becoming the first Nebraska elector to vote for a Democratic nominee in 44 years.

Dividing the southern part of Douglas County, which includes Omaha, would separate two minority communities that have learned to work together politically, said Preston Love Jr., a Democratic activist. It would cleave North Omaha, which is majority Black, from South Omaha, which is nearly half Hispanic.

“If you draw a line between the Black voters in North Omaha and the brown voters of South Omaha, that is gerrymandering,” Love said at the hearing. “These are two unique communities that have been building their voting commonality for generations.”

But Republican state Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, sponsor of the GOP redistricting plan, said Douglas County needs to be broken up because its population is growing so fast.

Long-Term Risk

Slicing up liberal cities carries some risk for Republicans, however. In the long term, demographic changes can cause even gerrymandered districts to flip Democratic, as they did in Atlanta’s suburbs over the past 10 years.

In Texas, “the Republicans have been using this to torment Austin for a long time, but they may have spread themselves a bit too thin,” said J. Miles Coleman, a political cartographer at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Austin’s sole Democratic district, represented by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, covers only about a quarter of the city’s population and extends to San Antonio, some 80 miles away.

Austin is the seat of Travis County, which overall voted for Joe Biden by 72%, but it has a patchwork of Republican congressional representatives. That’s why activist Nina Brodsky thinks she can’t get a fair hearing for her ideas. She argues that her congressional representative, Republican U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, is more concerned with his rural constituents, who outnumber the Austinites.

“He knows he doesn’t need our votes to win an election and he feels free to ignore our concerns,” Brodsky said. “Austin is a big city with big city problems. We have serious issues with affordability, health care, transportation, housing, homelessness and policing.”

Republicans might decide to reunite most of Austin as a Democratic “vote sink” to solidify Republican majorities in other areas, Coleman said, a scenario that other experts agree is likely. Even Texas Republicans are not happy having slices of liberal cities added to their districts; they’d rather focus on agriculture and rural perspectives on energy and health care.

“We need farmers and ranchers in Washington and Austin. It’s critical that our influence remain the same,” said U.S. Rep. August Pfluger, a West Texas Republican, at a redistricting hearing last spring. “There’s no place like home and no place like rural Texas.”

But as Southern Republicans try to squeeze out more congressional seats despite the declining population of their rural base, some GOP leaders are putting the brakes on the short-term fix of dividing cities.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, says he is opposed to a plan to split Louisville into three districts to eliminate a Democratic congressional seat. Republicans against the plan said it could result in a lawsuit and court-drawn districts that would be even more advantageous to Democrats.

‘They Won’t Be Able to Keep It Up’

In Tennessee, Republicans are undaunted by such concerns. They are moving forward with a plan to split a Nashville-based congressional district to remove a longtime Democratic seat.

North Carolina will gain one more seat in Congress after the census, and experts expect the Republican-dominated legislature to split fast-growing liberal cities to maintain power. Maps for next year’s races are due by December.

“Certainly, city splits are something that folks are keeping an eye out for,” said Christopher Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

After the last census, GOP lawmakers halved liberal Asheville into two congressional districts until a 2019 court ruling reversed the change. However, they did manage to adjust the lines of the Asheville district to include more conservative areas, changing it “from the most competitive district in North Carolina to the most Republican-leaning district in the state overnight,” said Cooper.

Kelly Girtz, Democratic mayor of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, pointed out that his city once had a Democratic representative it shared with Savannah and other nearby liberal-leaning areas. Now it is split between two GOP-dominated districts.

But Girtz said creative line-drawing can’t compensate for dramatic population shifts—at least not forever.

“Twenty years ago, Democrats were losing power and doing whatever they could do to keep whatever representation they could, and now I see Republicans doing the same thing,” Girtz said. “I try to take the long view. When it comes to 2030, they won’t be able to keep it up.”

In Illinois, Democrats have successfully split up Naperville, located in one of Chicago’s “collar counties,” which were once known as bastions of suburban conservatism.

Naperville has a Republican mayor and a population of about 150,000 spread across three congressional districts, all Democratic. “We have a lot of Republicans here represented by Democrats now,” said Jim Ruhl, chair of the Naperville Township Republican Organization. The township includes part of the city of Naperville.

In Illinois, 2011 Democratic redistricting put an end to a Republican majority in the state’s congressional delegation. Republicans and the League of Women Voters sued unsuccessfully, saying the Democrats took advantage of their power to put Republicans at a disadvantage. This year’s proposed redistricting is likely to squeeze out even more Republicans.

Following a national trend, however, the Chicago suburbs have gotten more Democratic in recent elections. Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood of Naperville beat out incumbent Republican Randy Hultgren in 2020 for one of Naperville’s congressional seats.

“We have more people moving here from Chicago and they’re bringing their politics with them,” said Ruhl.

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.