Josh Kurtz: Mapmaker, Mapmaker Make Me a Map

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Pulses are racing in Maryland over the possibility that Democrats will try to manipulate the congressional boundaries to give the party a seventh favorable district in next year’s elections.

That’s understandable, with so many ambitious Democrats across the state. And with national Democrats desperately looking for 25 House seats to pick up in 2012, so they can regain control of the chamber, it’s only natural that they’d look to mapmakers in ultra-blue Maryland to help them out.

Will Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and legislative leaders attempt such an audacious move?

Why not? Politics is all about the art of the possible. And nothing is more possible, when you control all the levers of power, than gerrymandering – especially in this era of micro data. Redistricting is a wondrous thing.

But will they actually succeed? That’s a trickier proposition.

Geography and population patterns pose two obstacles. But so do turf-conscious incumbents unwilling to make sacrifices, long-term political considerations, and the realization that Maryland, for all its Democratic strongholds, isn’t as liberal – or as loyally Democratic – as everyone assumes it is.

Remember that as recently as 2002, Maryland’s House delegation had four Democrats and four Republicans. Part of that was thanks to William Donald Schaefer, who as governor was more interested in protecting Helen Bentley following the 1990 Census than any partisan gain for the Democrats. Combine that with then-U.S. Rep. Roy Dyson’s political implosion and the legal imperative to create a second majority-African-American district in the state, and suddenly Maryland had four districts capable of sending Republicans to Washington.

A decade later, Parris Glendening’s main goal was to undo Schaefer’s map. So in 2002, an excellent year for the GOP nationally, and one that saw the election of the state’s first Republican governor in 36 years, Democrats nevertheless flipped two congressional seats, and came away with a 6-2 edge. After Frank Kratovil’s fluke victory in 2008, they had a 7-1 advantage, but his seat quickly fell back into the GOP column last fall.

Given what we know about Maryland – its population and geography and voting proclivities – 6-2 for the Democrats feels about right. Some people could even make the case for 5-3.

So how do you get to 7-1? Not so easily, at first glance.

The most reliably Republican voters happen to be at either end of the state – on the Eastern Shore, which is the heart of Republican Rep. Andy Harris’ district, and in Western Maryland, where Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett has held his seat since 1993. So you can’t easily pack GOP voters into one district.

How do you make Bartlett’s 6th District more favorable to Democrats? You include the northern and western halves of Montgomery County in it, and maybe a good chunk of Howard County. Heck, you may even have to run it into Baltimore County and Baltimore City.

How do you make Harris’ 1st District better for Democrats? When it comes across the Bay Bridge, instead of going toward Baltimore County, you’d have to take in the most Democratic precincts in Anne Arundel County, along with swaths of Prince George’s County and maybe Charles County, the one Democratic jurisdiction in Southern Maryland. Or maybe this district too has to find its way to Baltimore city.

In other words, it can be done. But the boundaries would look even uglier – and more tortured – than they are now.

And what would comfortable Democratic incumbents be willing to give up? That may be the most important consideration of all.

In 2010, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D) was re-elected with 64 percent of the vote. Rep. John Sarbanes (D) got 61 percent. Rep. Donna Edwards (D) got 83 percent, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) took 64 percent. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) won 75 percent en route to his re-election, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) rolled with 73 percent.

Are any of these incumbents willing to work harder, raise and spend more money, face possible political defeat, to help the party gain a seat in Maryland? Sacrifice, for these guys, probably means trading a guaranteed 68 percent of the vote every two years for a guaranteed 64 percent. That’s not enough.

To make a serious dent in Bartlett’s district, or Harris’, some of these Democrats are going to have to be willing to run for re-election in unfamiliar, less friendly territory. Ruppersberger, Sarbanes and Hoyer already have significant swing or conservative areas in their districts. And while it’s hard to imagine any of them vulnerable under the current lines, taking on significantly more hostile precincts could make any of them sweat more than a little, especially in a good Republican year.

There are cautionary tales for Maryland Democrats all across the country – both when it comes to selfish incumbents and political parties overreaching during the redistricting process.

It is perhaps no coincidence that as they survey the landscape in the 43 states where the congressional lines will be redrawn before Election Day 2012 (seven states have just one House member), national Republican strategists are taking a much more cautious approach than their Democratic counterparts when it comes to the prospect of creating more favorable districts through redistricting. Three examples from the last round of redistricting might give Maryland Democrats pause as they contemplate carving out a seventh House district.

In three states that are always considered battlegrounds during presidential years, Republicans produced highly-partisan congressional maps a decade ago. In Ohio following the 2002 election, Republicans had an 11-7 advantage in the congressional delegation. In Pennsylvania, the GOP edge was 12-7. And in Florida, where the 2000 White House election had essentially ended in a tie, the Republicans had an eye-popping 18-7 hold on the delegation.

But as the decade progressed, as Democrats made gains at the polls and inroads in districts where the Republicans had pressed their luck and given themselves too small a margin of error, the GOP advantage gradually eroded. By 2009, Democrats had a 10-8 edge in the Ohio delegation, a 12-7 advantage in Pennsylvania, and they picked up three seats in Florida.

Just last week in Missouri, the Republican legislature overrode the Democratic governor’s veto of a GOP-drawn congressional map that obliterated one Democratic district (Missouri is losing one seat – a fate that Maryland, thankfully, is not facing).

But this was no ordinary partisan outcome. This vote in the legislature to eliminate the seat of Rep. Russ Carnahan (D) – part of Missouri’s leading Democratic family – was essentially sanctioned by Emanuel Cleaver, Carnahan’s fellow Democratic congressman.

Cleaver – who was once so close to the Carnahans that he spoke at the funeral of former Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), Russ Carnahan’s father – was motivated by different things. He is the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, so by eliminating Carnahan’s St. Louis-area seat, he was preserving one held by another African-American member, Rep. Lacy Clay (D).

And, by Cleaver’s own admission, he liked his district in Kansas City and the suburbs, and didn’t really feel like competing in one that extended out into the hinterlands. So when the legislature voted last week to override the governor’s veto of the redistricting bill, it wasn’t a Republican, but a Democratic ally of Cleaver’s in the state Senate who provided the deciding vote.

Redistricting is a funny game.

So yes, Maryland Democrats could try to give themselves a 7-1 advantage. But any would-be Democratic congressman from the 1st District or the 6th District shouldn’t spend a lot of time dreaming about a nice office in the Rayburn building just yet.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Two More Giants Exit the Maryland Scene

Six Degrees of William Donald Schaefer

The Lion in Winter

O’Malley’s (Coast to Coast) March

This Time It's Personal

Seinfeld in Maryland

The First 107 Days

Team of Rivals?

Rob Garagiola’s Political Highway

Blame the Teachers!

The Nine Lives of the ICC

The Incredible Shrinking City

Paying the Fare
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.