For those who follow decennial redistricting carefully, the past few months have been like the "Phoney War" that preceded the German invasion of France in World War II. Both sides are eying each other warily, knowing full well that battle is inevitable, and waiting for the other to strike. Aside from Indiana Republicans weakening Democrat Joe Donnelly's seat significantly, most of the changes have been quiet, and will likely have little impact on the partisan balance in Congress.
Today, Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois (pictured) is expected to launch the first salvo of the 2012 redistricting wars by signing a bill that creates new congressional districts for the state. In a typical election, it should yield a 12-6 Democratic edge, with a possible 13-5 edge in a wave year. This would represent a loss of five Republican seats, more than reversing the GOP gains made in 2010. Consider: Democrats have to pick up 24 seats to retake control of the House. With this map, they are roughly 20 percent of the way there.
But the map also illustrates the peril of over-gerrymandering. There is a chance that the map spreads Democrats too thin. In a Republican wave year, it could still yield a heavily Republican delegation, especially if there are some unfortunately timed Democratic retirements. Similarly, if suburban America were to shift back toward Republicans as the party becomes more focused on fiscal conservatism, the Democratic map could come unraveled.
The basic theory behind the new map is pretty simple. The old lines provided for seven districts based in Cook County, five rural/small-town districts, and seven suburban/exurban districts. These latter districts are where Democrats wreaked the most havoc. The current suburban districts generally begin in the inner suburbs of Chicago, radiate out into the outer suburbs and, in some cases, into rural areas. These districts generally lean Republican, though not overwhelmingly so.
Democrats abandoned this approach and instead created three districts that can be thought of as concentric C's, which wrap around and take in the Republican exurbs and outer suburbs. Democrats then pushed a few of the heavily Democratic Chicago districts out into the suburbs somewhat, and brought the remaining districts into the inner suburbs, making a batch of districts that lean Democratic. In so doing, Democrats scrambled the lines enough that the homes of three Republican incumbents were placed in heavily Democratic districts, while two other freshmen Republicans, Joe Walsh and Randy Hultgren, were placed together.
To better understand the promise -- and peril -- of these districts, a closer inspection is needed.
Safe Democratic Districts (1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9)
The map retains three majority African-American districts, although all are now only narrowly so. Democrats also decided not to break up the famed Latino-majority "earmuffs" district; a narrow strip will still loop around African-American neighborhoods to join Puerto Ricans in Northwest Chicago with Mexican-Americans in Southwest Chicago. Incidentally, there are now enough Latino voters in the Chicago area to create two Latino majority districts; if a court decides that the Voting Rights Act requires two such districts, the whole map could unravel. In addition, Mike Quigley's and Jan Schakowsky's districts maintain a heavily Democratic lean to them, although they were pushed out into the suburbs a bit.
Safe Republican Districts (6, 14, 15, 16, 18)
Peter Roskam's 6th District was made safely Republican, while Joe Walsh was placed in the heavily exurban and Republican 14th District with Randy Hultgren. Don Manzullo's 16th District now wraps around from the Wisconsin border to the Indiana state line; it is heavily Republican. Finally, the downstate 15th and 18th were shored up a bit for the Republicans.
Not-Safe Districts (3, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17)Six of the seven remaining districts will tend to elect Democrats, while the seventh will tend to elect Republicans. But it isn't as much of a sure thing as many analysts have claimed. These analysts have tended to look at the Obama vote percentage, which averages 59.8 percent in the six Democratic-leaning districts, and conclude that these are safely Democratic seats.
But Obama's vote percentage can be misleading. First, he won in a good Democratic year. In "normal" election years, the GOP should be competitive in districts that gave 52, 53 or even 54 percent of their votes to the president. More importantly, he ran especially well in his home state of Illinois, and exceptionally well in northern Illinois. Whereas he ran about five points ahead of John Kerry's showing nationwide, he ran seven points ahead of Kerry in Illinois. In the suburban/exurban districts, he ran about nine points ahead of Kerry (including a 12-point improvement over Kerry in the 8th District).
With that in mind, we'll look at the remaining seven districts individually, but we won't confine ourselves to Obama's vote share in each district. We'll also look at how the districts voted in 2010 for governor, senator, and state treasurer.* Looking at how the district voted in a very good Democratic year and a very good Republican year will give us a better idea of how these districts will vote in average Republican years.
3rd District (POTUS: 59 percent Dem) (Gov: 52 percent Dem) (Sen: 49 percent Dem) (Treas: 47 percent Dem). Socially conservative, fiscally liberal "New Deal" Democrats once dominated the Chicago delegation. Daniel Lipinski is the last of this group. His white working-class-dominated district in southwest Cook County was actually made more Republican, with Obama's vote share falling by five points. At the same time, the Democratic ticket struggled here in 2010. Lipinski would hold on easily here, but if he were to seek higher office or retire (both of which seem unlikely), a Republican candidate could compete here in a good enough Republican year.
8th District (POTUS: 62 percent Dem) (Gov: 48 percent Dem) (Sen: 46 percent Dem) (Treas: 42 percent Dem). Joe Walsh, a political unknown who narrowly defeated Democrat Melissa Bean in 2010, no longer resides in this district, and about two-thirds of his old district has been moved to the 6th. Obama's vote share increased from 56 percent to 62 percent, a substantial improvement. Overall, this is a pretty Democratic district, but remember that Republicans were able to hold the neighboring 10th in 2010, which gave Obama 61 percent of the vote. In addition, the Democratic ticket had some problems here in 2010. In a good enough Republican year, or if the suburbs swing back toward Republicans, a Republican would be competitive.
10th District (POTUS: 64 percent Dem) (Gov: 50.4 percent Dem) (Sen: 44 percent Dem) (Treas: 44 percent Dem). Bob Dold is probably going to see his congressional career cut short. The partisan makeup of this Northern Chicago district didn't change that much, but the Democrats in his district now tend to be more reliable Democratic voters. Still, Alex Giannoulias ran poorly for the Senate here (in part because Mark Kirk represented much of this area), while Pat Quinn barely won. It would take a good GOP year and probably a general movement of the suburbs back toward Republicans, but a Republican candidate could win here.
11th District (POTUS: 62 percent Dem) (Gov: 49 percent Dem) (Sen: 48 percent Dem) (Treas: 45 percent Dem). Current 11th District Congressman Adam Kinzinger now resides in Jesse Jackson Jr.'s district. This Southwestern Chicago district is actually more of a new district, drawing about half of its voters from the old 13th District (the district that was technically eliminated), and a quarter each from old 11th and 14th. Once again, this will tend to elect a Democrat in most years, but the 2010 Democratic ticket's performance was underwhelming. In a good GOP year, the Republicans should be competitive and, once again, if the suburbs shift a bit toward the Republicans in the next decade, the Democrats would find this a 50-50 district.
12th District (POTUS: 56 percent Dem) (Gov: 47 percent Dem) (Sen: 48 percent Dem) (Treas: 48 percent Dem). Jerry Costello will probably keep this Southwest Illinois district for as long as he wants it (although an obscure opponent held him below 60 percent in 2010). But at age 61, it is far from certain that his career will span this entire decade. Should the seat open up, it would be a competitive district.
13th District (POTUS: 56 percent Dem) (Gov: 40 percent Dem) (Sen: 41 percent Dem) (Treas: 40 percent Dem). Since the old 13th was technically eliminated, this is really John Shimkus' renumbered 19th. But Shimkus will see a lot of new voters; only about 30 percent of his old constituents live in this district. Still, aside from Barack Obama, the Democratic ticket fared poorly here in 2010, and in all but the best Democratic years, the seat should still elect a Republican.
17th District (POTUS: 61 percent Dem) (Gov: 42 percent Dem) (Sen: 42 percent Dem) (Treas: 45 percent Dem). This is probably the biggest head-scratcher of the bunch, and it may be that some incomplete data are making the 2010 Democratic performance look weaker than it really was. Freshman GOP Rep Bobby Schilling's district has been made much more compact. It's also been made more Democratic; Obama's vote share here was improved by about four points. But Obama ran unusually well in the northwest portion of the state, which is traditionally a GOP stronghold. As you see, the rest of the Democratic ticket apparently had a terrible showing here in 2010. To be sure, a Democrat can win this district, and Schilling, who came to Congress with little experience, could have a rough time in 2012 with Obama atop the ticket. But a GOP candidate could win here as well; the district is probably more of a tossup in a "normal" year.
Overall, this map should accomplish its goals by reversing the GOP gains of 2010 and creating an overwhelmingly Democratic congressional delegation, especially assuming that 2012 is not a GOP blowout. In the medium- to long term, it could present problems for the Democrats. But perhaps most importantly, the phoney war period is over. The redistricting spotlight now moves to Texas, Ohio and North Carolina, states where the GOP will try to mount a counterattack