Congressional Redistricting: Where They Draw the Lines

The call to Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) was innocuous enough. Last Thursday, C-SPAN hosted Kucinich as a guest on its morning program, Washington Journal. And the first caller to Kucinich was a Republican from Ohio, identified only as "Jim."

"How many representatives do we have in Ohio?" Jim asked of Kucinich.

The Congressman responded that the Buckeye state has 18 House members.

"Do they have offices in Ohio AND Washington?" queried Jim.

Kucinich said yes, noting that all lawmakers have quarters at the Capitol and at least one office back home. For instance, Kucinich has offices in the Cleveland suburbs of Parma and Lakewood.

"It seems like there a lot of offices," Jim replied. "We have a Congress. The Senate. We have a governor and stuff. Why do we need so many?"

Well, Jim won't have to worry much longer about why Ohio has "so many" Congressional offices. In the coming year, Ohio joins New York as one of two states on schedule two lose two House seats as a result of the 2010 census.

There's an old saw adage in professional and collegiate sports: it's bad enough you have to play the other team. But it's quite another to have to take on the officials, too.

Such will be the case over the next few years as Democrats try to win back control of the House of Representatives. It will be hard enough to beat the Republicans. But the Democrats also have to take on the officials as well.

And in many respects, the referees are Republicans because they control the redistricting process in many key states.

The decennial census dictates that the country jostle all 435 Congressional districts to better reflect the distribution of the American population. Where Americans live changes each decade. Some states and regions swell with people. Others stagnate. And a few begin to winnow on the vine.

In many cases, it's a problem of keeping up with the Joneses. In this case, the Joneses are Texas and Florida. Due to population surges, Texas earned a whopping four new House seats. Florida will add two.

Meantime, Ohio and New York remain populous places. But they didn't enjoy the population spikes that Texas and Florida did. Or even Utah and Washington, which both scored an additional Congressional seat. And other states like Iowa will shed a Congressional seat as well.

Texas and Florida don't just get to tack on seats. Think of the House of Representatives as a big pie that can't get any larger. It's set by statute at 435 pieces. The census decides which states get additional slices of pie. And Ohio and New York are now on a Congressional version of Jenny Craig and will lose two pie pieces. And then it's up to the states to carve up their own districts to reflect the new distribution.

And that's where Republicans will wield the knife.

So Ohio has to condense the 18 Congressional districts established after the 2000 census into 16. New York's apportionment diet dissolves its 29 districts into 27.

Some states appoint a commission to draw the new lines. Others leave it up to their legislature. Regardless, Democrats will draw the lines to favor Democrats and Republicans will endeavor to benefit Republicans.

Let's study New York for starters, even though this is an area where Democrats could make some inroads against the GOP.

New York voters dispatched six Republican freshmen to the House last year. That puts freshman Reps. Tom Reed (R-NY), Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY), Nan Hayworth (R-NY), Richard Hanna (R-NY), Michael Grimm (R-NY) and Chris Gibson (R-NY) at risk right off the bat. Democrats could redraw the lines in such a way that blends together the districts now held by some of these freshmen, forcing them to run against one another in primaries while protecting their own lawmakers. The scandal that erupted last week involving former Rep. Chris Lee (R-NY) could also put his now-vacant district on the table.

Democrats usually win out in New York. But it's anybody's guess how an independent commission there could draw the lines.

But Ohio is a different enterprise as the GOP controls the redistricting process.

For instance, Republicans dominated the redistricting process in the Buckeye State in 2000. Ohio has three major metropolitan areas: Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. There are strong urban, Democratic influences in all three of those cities. But only Cleveland has bona fide Democratic districts. And since much of Ohio's population loss came in northeast Ohio, look for at least one of those seats to be yanked out from underneath the Democrats.

Meantime, neither Columbus nor Cincinnati featured districts that made it easy for Democrats to win election to the House. For instance, redistricting mavens chopped Columbus and its suburbs into three districts that stretched from the city's urban core to rural cornfields, full of GOP voters. The redistricting process yielded a similar result in Cincinnati, splitting the city in half. One district on east side of Cincinnati sprawls deep into rural, Republican turf along the Ohio River. And the Democratic vote is diluted in both districts.

Of course, were Democrats in charge, it's likely they would have drafted districts that produced Democratic representatives in both Columbus and Cincinnati and eliminated Republican advantages. And just for larks, Democrats would certainly go after House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Boehner usually cruises to re-election. Democrats would have enjoyed nothing more than watching the Speaker of the House sweat.

In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans defeated five incumbent Democrats in Ohio alone. The downside is that Republicans may make some of those freshman GOPers run against one another. On the other hand, Republicans could try to make Ohio Democrats an endangered species in the House of Representatives. They may blend together the districts of Reps. Bob Latta (R-OH) and Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) in northwest Ohio. Or, they could devise a scheme that throws together Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Betty Sutton (D-OH) in the Cleveland area. That's a risky strategy as the Congressional Black Caucus would be sure to raise hackles about the GOP and Boehner if they eliminate the only black-majority district in the state, now held by Fudge.

Another interesting case study is Iowa. The Hawkeye State currently has five House districts. Democrats hold three seats and Republicans possess the other two. But after the 2010 Census, Iowa has to wean itself to four seats.

The only metropolitan region in Iowa is Des Moines, currently represented by Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA). Iowa was one of the few places where vulnerable Democrats held their ground against the GOP wave last year. But redistricting could alter that, especially if the GOP decides to eliminate Boswell's district in Des Moines. That would again dilute Democratic votes in an urban area akin to what happened in Columbus and Cincinnati.

Any way you look at it, Democrats face a rough road because so many states that gain seats are Republican bastions. Georgia and South Carolina both add seats. Meantime Massachusetts drops a seat.

It's hard to predict which direction the political winds will blow next year. President Obama is expected to face an uphill climb for re-election. But the sheer number of potential Democratic seats that are shaved away by the Census certainly increases the degree of difficulty for Democrats as they try to reclaim the House in 2012.