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GOP using redistricting to shore up House majority


WASHINGTON – The odds of getting re-elected have gotten better for Rep. Renee Ellmers and other Republican freshmen in the House – thanks to GOP calculations in redrawing congressional maps.

The 47-year-old nurse who ousted seven-term Democrat Bob Etheridge by fewer than 1,500 votes last November will be running next year in a newly drawn North Carolina district that’s less swing and more Republican.

The outlook is brighter too for Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold, a conservative talk radio host who edged 14-term Democrat Solomon Ortiz by just 797 votes. Farenthold will find more Republicans in a Corpus Christi-based district that now stretches north.

Republicans romped last November, gaining 63 House seats to secure the majority, winning 11 governorships, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, and seizing control of the most state legislative seats they’ve held since 1928. The GOP is capitalizing on its across-the-board control in 26 states – governorship plus legislature – in the census-based drawing of a new political map that will be a decisive factor in the 2012 elections and beyond.

“Republican freshmen are finding the ground harden beneath them as their current swing districts become less competitive for Democrats,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee. “Even seemingly small changes in district political leanings can mean big returns at the ballot box.”

Nearly half of the states have finished redrawing House lines based on population changes, although lawsuits and Justice Department reviews loom. The immediate post-election claims that the GOP could add 15 to 30 seats in the U.S. House through redistricting have proven unfounded, in large part because Republicans captured so many seats last November. Instead, the GOP has used the redistricting process to shore up its most vulnerable lawmakers, people like Ellmers and Farenthold.

“Redistricting starts with Republicans at a peak,” said Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. “They hold a solid majority of seats in the House. It’s hard to gain much more.”

In the last election, Republicans took control of the governorships and legislatures in Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana. That grip on power is reflected in the latest congressional lines. The GOP improved the political landscape for freshman Rep. Todd Young in southern Indiana, for example. And two of Michigan’s newest members, Dan Benishek in the north and Tim Walberg in the south, got a boost, as did Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, who’s also running for president. Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan and Sean Duffy also are looking at districts with more Republicans.

Republican optimism aside, Democrats are making the most of their opportunities. They’ve drawn favorable district lines in Illinois. And they’re hoping several political realities will help the party pick up the 25 net seats needed to recapture the House. Next year is a presidential election year, with the promise of higher turnout and an electorate with a greater number of Democratic-leaning younger voters and Hispanics. President Barack Obama will head the party ticket against a still to-be-determined Republican, who could either win over independents or send them running toward the Democrats.

Candidate recruitment and financial resources also will be factors in 2012.

In Illinois, Democrats ensured that the new political map makes life extremely tough for half of the state’s 11 House Republicans. The Democrats focused on competitive districts close to Democratic strongholds, carving up huge swaths of GOP territory and creating some difficult matchups for GOP incumbents.

Freshman Republican Robert Dold is suddenly in a race against seven-term Democrat Jan Schakowky. Freshman Republican Adam Kinzinger’s hometown of Manteno is now in nine-term Democrat Jesse Jackson Jr.’s district. Two Republican freshmen, Joe Walsh and Randy Hultgren, are now in the same district.

Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, calls Illinois the party’s “center of gravity” in the campaign to take back the House.

“Cook County still rules,” observed Thom Serafin, a political communications analyst in Illinois. “Everything around them may be getting redder.”

In California, Democrats have the potential to gain 3 or 4 seats based on the map drawn by the 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission, an independent panel that paid more attention to geography and ethnicity than incumbency. Longtime Republicans Gary Miller and Ed Royce face uncertain futures as does David Dreier.

The Democratic outlook is the mirror opposite in North Carolina, where Republicans took control of the legislature last year — the first time since 1870. The new GOP-driven map makes the districts of conservative to moderate Democrats Heath Shuler, Larry Kissell, Mike McIntyre and Brad Miller more Republican. Miller loses the urban sections of Wake County while Shuler loses a good chunk of the city of Asheville.

And even though Democrat Bev Perdue is governor, she has little say in redistricting. The political parties in North Carolina agreed years ago that the governor couldn’t approve or reject the map.

Not surprisingly, Robin Hayes, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, was gleeful as he looked ahead to 2012 and the prospect of the GOP reversing the Democrats’ 7-6 edge in House seats. Not only does the party have the new map, but Hayes argued that the economic policies of Obama and Perdue’s support for the president will help boost the GOP.

“It’s a buffet line of reasons to vote Republican,” Hayes said.

Miller and Kissell, however, bucked the Republican wave in 2010, a remarkable feat considering how many conservative Southern Democrats were knocked out. Favorable factors for the Democrats include Obama’s plentiful resources, aimed at again winning a state he captured in 2008, and the choice of Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention next summer.

Paul Shumaker, a Republican political consultant, said nothing’s certain: “North Carolina is a swing state.”

Several states still must finish their maps – Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida, the latter expected to be completed next year.

Florida voters last year backed an initiative that requires redistricting that favors geography and compact districts over incumbency, which could improve Democrats’ chances. Florida Republicans currently hold 19 House seats, Democrats six.

Associated Press