The bipartisan commission that every ten years redraws both Connecticut’s state and federal political districts to conform to the results of the latest U.S. Census has just completed its work. The result: a fight over Congressional redistricting that may end in court. The question: How could this happen when the Democrats hold the Governorship and both branches of the legislature by wide margins? The answer: the Democratic leadership did a poor job of negotiating over redrawing the political map.
By tradition in Connecticut, a bipartisan commission of legislative leaders does redistricting. This year, the commission consisted of four Democrats, Speaker Chris Donovan (who later resigned and was replaced by Brendan Sharkey), Representative Sandy Nafis, Senator Don Williams and Senator Martin Looney, and four Republicans, Senator John McKinney, Senator Leonard Fasano, Representative Arthur O’Neil, and Representative Larry Cafero. Although the procedures of the bi-partisan commission are well established, they can be overridden by the overall legislature. That means Democrats held a number of cards in this process and they played them badly.
In redistricting at the state level, the Democrats did a mediocre job. The redrawn legislative maps that are official so far don’t change much but what they do change marginally helps Republicans.
By my count, there are 81 House districts that are very likely to elect a Democrat, particularly in a Presidential year, and 40 districts in which a Republican is very likely to be elected, and 30 toss-up districts. In the 30 toss-up districts, it is fair to say that Republicans strengthened their position in 10 of the districts, while Democrats only gained a bit of an advantage in one district. Additionally, Republicans were able to move five seats from being competitive to being secure for them, as opposed to Democrats who secured just three. Based on an early reading of the map, redistricting might well gain Republicans two or three seats in the House. On the Senate side, there are very few changes but again the changes slightly benefit Republicans. For instance, the new 31st grabs Thomaston, which will be valuable for Republican State Senator Jason Welch. Adding Prospect to the 16th helps Republicans a bit. Given that there is higher turnout in a Presidential election year, which favors Democrats, it’s unlikely these slight changes will help Republicans much in 2012. Democrats still have a chance to pick off the two seats they lost in 2010, the 13th and 31st.
On the whole Democrats gave a bit more than they had to, but it was a wash—until it came to the Congressional maps. There the Republicans demanded a lot, and Democrats, who had foolishly let this go last after all the state matters were done, didn’t have anything with which to bludgeon the Republicans. This led to the deadlock and the need to go court for an extension.
The Republicans proposed the most advantageous Congressional District gerrymander for them imaginable in this state. The most obvious and detrimental change is moving overwhelmingly Democratic Bridgeport out of the 4th congressional district and into the 3rd – which alone would dramatically weaken Democratic Congressman Jim Himes. The 3rd is so solidly Democratic the addition of Bridgeport doesn’t matter at all. To add insult to injury, Republicans also moved to make the 5th – the state’s next most contested congressional district – as Republican or slightly more Republican. Some Republican parts of the 5th were added to the 4th to make up for the loss of Bridgeport’s population. To ensure Republican strength in the 5th, Republicans then moved heavily Democratic New Britain to the 1st – another Democratic stronghold not in need of more Democratic voters. Republicans also created an elongated 2nd that stretches from Thompson all the way to Branford on the shore. They did this in part to keep the 2nd from getting more Democratic. The overall plan creates relatively intact geographically districts, and unlike old maps avoids more ugly lines like the old map – a clever strategy to look as if they’re not engaged in gerrymandering when they are.
The Democrats did two things in the course of negotiations that allowed this to happen. First, they gave up their biggest weapon when they did state redistricting before federal redistricting. Had they wanted to, Democrats could have attempted a similar partisan redistricting on the state level. Just consider three of the four Republican members of the legislative committee. It would not have been difficult to draw districts that would have made it very hard for Cafero, Fasano, and McKinney to win reelection. (Rep. O’Neil’s district would have been nearly impossible to change.) Instead, the map Democrats agreed to gives Cafero and Fasano slightly safer districts, and lets McKinney hold serve. Democrats thus gave away the chance to gain substantially in the legislature—Democrats could have drawn at least three more Senate seats, and upwards of 10 or more House seats. Even worse, they lost the threat of partisan state redistricting, including danger to commission members’ own seats, as a weapon to hold the Republicans in line on Congressional redistricting.
Second, the Democrats erred in sticking with the current Congressional districts, rather than putting forward a redrawn Congressional map that would have favored them. That narrowed the range of possible compromises with Republicans on the bipartisan commission and meant any compromise would necessarily be better for Republicans. Making it even worse, from a Democratic perspective, is that the current map was negotiated 10 years ago when there was a Republican Governor and the Congressional delegation was split evenly between three Republicans and three Democrats. (All five members of the Connecticut delegation are now Democrats.) So the Democratic leadership proposed sticking with a map that wasn’t so great for them to begin with.
Congressional redistricting in Connecticut is not an academic exercise. The battle for control of the U.S. House, as it looks now, rests on about 15 to 20 seats. Democrats don’t have many, if any, seats to spare. The loss of a seat in Connecticut might well tip the balance nationally. If that happens it would be because Connecticut’s state Democrat leaders didn’t negotiate effectively. They got rolled.
Jason Paul is a Connecticut political operative from West Hartford and a University of Connecticut Law School student.