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Essential Politics: Republicans are still gerrymandering, but how much is it helping them?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis stands in front of a microphone, gesturing with his right hand as he speaks.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a Miami news conference Feb. 1 where he said he would veto the congressional districting plan drawn by lawmakers and force a special session. He signed his preferred Republican-friendly map into law Friday.
(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)
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Florida’s Republican-majority legislature wasted little time this week in giving Gov. Ron DeSantis what he wanted — new boundaries for the state’s congressional districts that stand as one of the most aggressively partisan gerrymanders in the country.

The plan, approved by the Florida Legislature this week and signed by DeSantis on Friday, would virtually guarantee Republicans 20 out of 28 districts in a state that splits almost evenly in politics — one where former President Trump’s 51.2% victory in 2020 represented the second-widest margin in three decades.

DeSantis’ gerrymander may not survive court scrutiny — Florida voters amended their state constitution in 2010 to limit partisan line-drawing. His supporters hope a Republican-dominated state Supreme Court will read the limits narrowly.

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The court fight in Florida is one of two that will determine the final balance of this year’s nationwide redrawing of congressional maps. The other will be in New York where the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, will soon hear a challenge to Democrats’ aggressive gerrymander.

If Republicans were to win both those court fights, they likely would emerge with a small nationwide advantage from the once-a-decade process of redistricting. Overall, however, the main pattern of this year has been that courts, citizens commissions and changing demographics have limited the ability of Republicans to use gerrymandering to bolster their power in the House, reversing a decades’ long pattern.

An even more partisan House

In the 1970s and 1980s, Democrats used their control over state legislatures to gerrymander their way to persistent House majorities.

Starting after the 1990 census, however, Republicans took the upper hand. For decades, the GOP has enjoyed a built-in advantage in the House, forcing Democrats to fight uphill.

This year, by contrast, redistricting has yielded a nearly balanced map, with neither party having a disproportionate advantage.

“The bias, across the country, is going to be a lot more modest,” said UC Berkeley political science Prof. Eric Schickler. “That’s an important change.”

A few unrelated elements collided to produce that result: Several states drew aggressively partisan lines, but the biggest Democratic and Republican gerrymanders largely canceled each other out. In other states, courts stepped in to limit partisan line drawing. In still others, notably Texas, Republican weakness in suburban areas meant that they had to put a lot of their effort into shoring up their incumbents, rather than going after more Democratic seats.

Some of the court fights over redistricting will extend past this year. There’s a good chance that the districts in which voters cast their ballots in November won’t be final in Florida, North Carolina, New York and Ohio. Some districts may end up being redrawn next year or even the year after. The overall partisan balance, however, appears fairly well set.

The fact that the House results will now pretty closely match the overall vote won’t help Democrats this year — they’re on track to lose the midterm elections by a big margin.

But in 2024 and subsequent years, the lack of a strong, built-in GOP bias could help Democrats regain a majority.

Whether a more proportionate House is a fairer House is a harder question.

Although the national map is fairly evenly balanced, that doesn’t help voters whose individual states have been gerrymandered. In Wisconsin, for example, Republican lawmakers drew lines that block Democratic voters in much of the state from an effective say in who gets elected. Democrats in New York and Illinois did much the same to Republican voters.

A hit to Black, Latino representation

The Republican gerrymanders will also likely reduce the number of Black members of Congress.

DeSantis’ Florida map, alone, would eliminate two districts currently represented by Black lawmakers — one in the northern part of the state in which Black residents currently make up 47% of the population and the other in the Orlando area, where Black and Latino residents make up a majority. The newly drawn districts would have white majorities.

The conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to that kind of map drawing by narrowly interpreting the federal Voting Rights Act. In preliminary rulings in two cases so far this year — one from Alabama and one from Wisconsin — the justices signaled further narrowing to come.

Latino representation may continue to grow nationwide, but in Texas and some other states, mapmakers took advantage of the high court’s leniency and failed to create majority Latino districts that they could have drawn.

A more volatile House

One of the biggest effects of redistricting may be to make governing even harder.

Given the close national divide between the parties, a more proportional House will probably be a more volatile one, with fewer stable majorities and even sharper partisan differences.

Paradoxically, however, while the House majority may swing back and forth more because the two sides are close to parity, the number of swing districts — the ones that either party can win — has sharply shrunk.

In the 1990s, almost a quarter of the House came from swing seats. That’s down to about 1 in 10.

Last month, Nathaniel Rakich and Elena Mejía of FiveThirtyEight estimated that “the 2022 congressional map could have the fewest swing seats in a generation.”

The loss of swing seats means an increase in the number of lawmakers whose only real challenge comes in their party’s primary. They have few incentives for bipartisan cooperation.

That could come back to haunt GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, assuming Republicans win the House majority and he achieves his ambition of becoming House speaker.

In the current Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has succeeded beyond most expectations in keeping a very small majority in line to pass key legislation. The Democratic agenda has stalled in the Senate, but much of it passed the House.

In recent years, Republican majorities have been much harder to corral, as the past two Republican Speakers, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and John Boehner of Ohio, found out.

“The problem Republican speakers face is really on their right,” Schickler said. “If you’re a Republican speaker, you’re going to have some pressure to govern and make deals to keep the government running so you’re not blamed for a shutdown.” But a lot of members on the right aren’t interested in compromises.

Boehner cut deals in 2011 to avoid an unprecedented default on federal debt, for example, “and it created a lot of problems on the right.” With redistricting reducing the number of members with an incentive to participate in dealmaking, “McCarthy will face that problem just as badly, if not worse.”

Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who is not seeking reelection after 35 years in the House, talked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” recently about the problem posed by members like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who have discovered that they can raise a lot of money by making outrageous statements that draw social media attention, and for whom legislation is merely a distraction.

“It will be very hard to govern for Republicans… knowing that we’ve got the MTG element that’s really not a part of a governing majority,” Upton said.

In the short term, the predictable threats of government shutdowns and crises over the debt limit will create new headaches for President Biden. In the longer run, however, a more partisan, less governable House could backfire on the GOP.

In 1995-96 and again in 2011-2012, Democratic presidents faced Republican House majorities determined to fight, not deal. Ultimately, Presidents Clinton and Obama turned the resulting shutdowns and other crises to their advantage and won reelection.

Biden, currently mired in a dismal low point in polls, can only hope that pattern holds.

United States of California

a man walks between two lines of trees under a blue sky
Frank Olagary walks through a super high density sikatitia olive orchard on his farm in Walnut Grove, Calif.
(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

When is olive oil produced in California not “California olive oil”? A multimillion-dollar battle turns on the answer to that question, Evan Halper reported. The nation’s food industry has watched the dispute between the state’s artisan producers and a Chico-based olive oil giant that combines fruit from other places with California olives to fill some of its bottles.

The fight, which led to a new labeling law, is the latest in a series of battles nationwide over who gets to control the names of specialty foods.

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The latest from the campaign trail

Vice President Kamala Harris returned to San Francisco on Thursday to highlight her longtime focus on maternal health, capping a quiet week in California as the White House grapples with how to sell its policies ahead of the midterm election season. As Courtney Subramanian and Melanie Mason reported, the California visit could provide some political upside for Harris, offering an opportunity to talk about an issue that excites the Democratic base.

In a speech at UC San Francisco, Harris said the U.S. faces a crisis in maternal healthcare.

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The latest from Washington

The Supreme Court justices seem ready to shield police from civil lawsuits for failing to provide Miranda warnings to suspects, David Savage reported. If a police officer fails to give a Miranda warning, any statement a defendant makes may be excluded from a trial. But whether the defendant also can sue the officer has remained an open question. Hearing arguments in a case from Los Angeles, the justices strongly signaled they will not allow such suits.

On Thursday, the court ruled in favor of a California family seeking to recover a Pissarro painting looted by a Nazi official in 1939 and eventually put on display in a Spanish museum. As Savage reported, the 9-0 ruling did not resolve the dispute but sent the case back to a courtroom in Los Angeles to decide the matter based on California law, which is favorable to the family. An appeals court had ruled that Spanish law should govern the case.

Biden announced Thursday that the U.S. will send Ukraine another $800 million in security assistance to help it defend against Russia’s offensive in the country’s eastern Donbas region, Eli Stokols reported. The new aid follows a similar $800-million package last week.

The Justice Department on Wednesday announced the arrest of 21 people, including seven Californians, in COVID-19 aid fraud cases totaling nearly $150 million, Sarah Wire reported. Those charged include medical business owners and executives, physicians and marketers, as well as multiple people alleged to have made fake COVID-19 vaccination cards.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House leader McCarthy both vowed to drive Trump out of politics in the days immediately following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, according to a new book by two New York Times reporters. In a telephone call with fellow members of the House Republican leadership four days after the attack, McCarthy said he thought Democratic efforts to impeach Trump “will pass, and it would be my recommendation he should resign,” according to a recording of the call.

Within weeks, however, both McConnell and McCarthy beat a quick retreat after they realized that Republican voters were sticking with the former president. That highlights “a rot at the core of the Republican Party,” Mark Barabak wrote.

The latest from California

Amid new reports that Sen. Dianne Feinstein‘s mental acuity is waning, the state’s voters lack good options, Barabak wrote. If Feinstein, 89, were to quit now, her replacement would be chosen by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has already appointed California’s junior U.S. senator, Alex Padilla. That would mean one individual selecting both U.S. senators on behalf of 40 million Californians. If she stays on the job, as she says she plans to do, Californians will have to wait until 2024 for their next opportunity to vote on the job.

Barabak spoke to Padilla the other day about his first 16 months in the Senate: “It’s not as bad as it looks,” the senator said. He’s been able to push for his priorities and even, in some cases, has managed to work with Republicans to push for bills that don’t divide along partisan lines. He cited an effort with Texas Republican John Cornyn on weatherproofing the country’s electrical grid, and work with Oklahoma Republican James Lankford to improve healthcare for Native Americans.

In the months after the police killing of George Floyd and the huge protests that generated, Hugo Soto-Martinez, Dulce Vasquez and Eunisses Hernandez all called for defunding of the Los Angeles Police Department. Now, as David Zahniser reported, the three are each running to unseat an incumbent Los Angeles City Council member. Their campaigns will test the public’s appetite for reining in law enforcement spending.

California Republicans have a convention in Anaheim this weekend. As they make final preparations, Seema Mehta looked at the state GOP and its upcoming electoral prospects.

Newsom’s far-reaching effort to push more people into court-ordered treatment for severe mental illness and addiction has run into heavy opposition from homeless advocates and some members of the Legislature, Hannah Wiley reported. The proposal’s first public hearing at the state Capitol has been delayed.

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