Monday, November 13, 2006

Republicans' Gerrymandering May Have Backfired

This Wall Street Journal article reports that Republican redistricting efforts coming out the 2000 census may have weakened the party's electoral chances this year:

Gerrymandering was supposed to cement Republican control of the House of Representatives, offering incumbents a wall of re-election protection even as public opinion turned sharply against them. Instead, the party's strategy of recrafting district boundaries may have backfired, contributing to the defeats of several lawmakers and the party's fall from power.

The reason: Republican leaders may have overreached and created so many Republican-leaning districts that they spread their core supporters too thinly. That left their incumbents vulnerable to the type of backlash from traditionally Republican-leaning independent voters that unfolded this week.

That helps to explain why three of four Republican incumbents in the Philadelphia area were beaten this week, while the remaining incumbent hung on by just a few thousand votes. In Florida, meanwhile, state lawmakers had shifted some Republican voters from the secure district of former Rep. Mark Foley in an attempt to shore up the re-election chances of Rep. Clay Shaw without risking the Foley seat. Instead, Democrats took both. In Texas, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay's decision to transfer thousands of stalwart Republican voters from his district in 2004 to boost a neighboring seat heightened the burden on the write-in candidate trying to hold Mr. DeLay's seat. She lost it.

"The trade-off in redistricting is between safety and maximizing the numbers," says Alan I. Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "You can't do both."

Redistricting, the traditionally once-a-decade process of redrawing of House districts to adjust to population trends, has always been a contentious procedure. But Republicans, under the leadership of Mr. DeLay, took the opportunity to use it as a reward or punishment to new heights in 2002.

In so doing, Republicans created two new vulnerabilities: the dangerous dilution of core voters and the nurturing of a sense of invulnerability that contributes to corruption and scandal.

Delay had led the GOP redistricting drive, working with state legislators to draw district lines maximizing potential gains for the Republicans. Delay also had the Texas legislature redraw district lines mid-decade, and by 2004 the Republicans had increased their majority in the House with a 232-202 margin over the Democrats. But as was the case with Delay's seat this election, Democrats elsewhere were able to focus on races in districts seen as closely matched between the parties:

In the summer of 2005, they created a target list for the 2006 campaign. The Philadelphia suburban seats of Mr. Gerlach, Rep. Curt Weldon and Rep. Melissa Hart were on it.

Combined, the lawmakers' districts are home to 182,000 union members. With direct-mail literature and telephone calls, the labor leaders attacked the incumbents for their stands on Social Security and a host of other issues working their way through Congress.

Meanwhile,, the liberal online group, was working through similar calculations. They put Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick on their target sheet. He won two years ago by 1,500 votes. MoveOn members made 102,000 telephone calls to inconsistent Democratic voters urging them to get out on Election Day. Its members donated $90,000 to his opponent's campaign.

On Tuesday, Mr. Fiztpatrick lost 50.3% to 49.7%. Ms. Hart lost 52% to 48%. Mr. Weldon, who also was stung by late disclosure of a federal investigation of his actions, lost 57% to 43%. Mr. Gerlach, the last Republican standing whose district was custom-made for him, is ahead amid final vote counting, 50.5% to 49.5%.
The article notes that the Democrats' success in picking up seats in closely realigned districts was limited. In states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, GOP state legislators were more careful to spread their partisans around, and they suffered less dramatically at the polls last Tuesday.

Rahm Emmanuel and the Democrats deserve a lot of credit for their shrewed election strategy. Yet, the GOP was right to use partisan gerrymandering to their advantage coming out of 2000. While some seats may have been packed too tight with party supporters, the overwhelming factor determining election outcomes this year was the demand for change within the electorate.

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