For years, some Democrats said gerrymandering was an insurmountable roadblock to the House majority that couldn’t be cleared until after the 2020 census.
Then along came President Donald Trump.
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House Democrats steamrolled Republicans in an array of districts last week, from those drawn by independent commissions or courts, to seats crafted specifically by Republicans with the intention of keeping them in the GOP column.
The overriding factor: a Republican president who political mapmakers could not have foreseen at the beginning of the decade. Trump altered the two parties’ coalitions in ways that specifically undermined conventional wisdom about the House map, bringing more rural voters into the GOP tent while driving away college-educated voters.
The trade worked in some states. But it was a Republican disaster in the House, where well-off suburbs, once the backbone of many GOP districts, rebelled against Trump in 2016 and then threw out House members in 2018.
“It’s worth pointing out that the map is still quite gerrymandered,” said David Shor, head of political data science at Civis Analytics, a Democratic firm. “But I think an underappreciated aspect of that is you had districts that elected incumbents that were good fits for the [Republican] coalition that existed — but no longer worked as well when the 2016 realignment happened.”
Two Illinois races in particular illustrate how political evolution outpaced the boundaries drawn after the 2010 census. GOP Reps. Peter Roskam and Randy Hultgren, who lost last week, had not been Democratic targets in any of the first three elections under the current map, and Mitt Romney carried their districts outside Chicago handily in the 2012 presidential election. Democrats designed the districts thinking they would elect Republicans in perpetuity, instead drawing maps aimed at flipping other districts in the state in 2012.
But Roskam’s district flipped to Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016, while Trump won Hultgren’s district with just 48 percent of the vote that year. More than half of Roskam’s adult constituents and 40 percent of Hultgren’s are college-educated, according to census data. And in the midterm elections, 26 of the 36 GOP districts that Democrats have flipped so far had larger college-educated populations than the national average.
“In Illinois, we had two suburban districts that everyone assumed would be Republican holds” but flipped, said Ian Russell, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee political director who coordinated with Illinois Democrats on redistricting seven years ago. He added that another district in a more rural area downstate, which was drawn for a former Democratic congressman, is still represented by a Republican.
“Trump accelerated all of” those trends, Russell said.
It was much the same story for GOP members representing the suburbs in red states like Georgia and Texas. Reps. Karen Handel (R-Ga.), John Culberson (R-Texas) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas) held seats drawn by Republicans to elect Republicans before Trump was elected. All of them lost.
Handel was one of just seven Republicans in the current House whose adult constituents were majority college-educated; there may be just one such member in the next Congress.
The education shift was still clear even in districts Republicans managed to hold. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) won by just 4 points in a slice of the St. Louis suburbs where 48 percent of adults have bachelor’s degrees. Wagner won by 21 points in 2016.
In California, New Jersey and elsewhere, the shifts among college-educated voters drove Republican House members out of districts that had not been battleground seats before Trump took over the political scene.
Despite Democrats’ massive House gains — the party’s biggest since 1974, after Richard Nixon’s resignation — redistricting clearly held them back in some places. Democrats netted at least 21 districts drawn by independent commissions or courts — getting a major boost from courts in Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia that altered GOP-drawn maps in the past two years — along with 10 districts drawn by Republicans and the two in Illinois that were drawn by Democrats.
In two swing states, Ohio and North Carolina, Democratic challengers forced close races in five districts that had not previously had competitive campaigns. But they all lost to GOP incumbents, preserving Republicans’ 10-3 edge in North Carolina’s congressional delegation and their 12-4 advantage in Ohio. Each of those districts combined Democratic-leaning big-city suburbs with stretches of heavily Republican rural territory that served as a decisive counterweight.
“Those suburban members who lost [in other states] would’ve killed for some of those rock-ribbed rural counties,” said Matt Borges, a former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, who predicted that future Republican-drawn districts would be more rural-centric.
“The wall there was just a bit higher than the wave,” said Russell, the former DCCC political director. He echoed other Democrats who said the party should not let its House victory or the coming presidential election sidetrack organizing in preparation for post-2020 redistricting.
“We won those House seats because of the unique factors that all came together in a once-in-a-generation election — driven by Trump — to bring that margin about,” said Kelly Ward, executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
She noted that many of Democrats’ gains came in states with maps from courts or commissions, as opposed to seats created by Republican gerrymandering.
“These districts are still not fair,” Ward said of the overall House map. “It’s like we just finished book four of Harry Potter, but the bad guys are still out there.”