Competitive congressional races on decline due to new redistricting maps

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(WASHINGTON) — Competitive races across the country are expected to disappear as states begin to submit their re-drawn maps for this decade’s round of redistricting.

While only 18 states have finished their gerrymandering process, nearly half a dozen highly competitive seats have been slashed from the last batch of congressional maps according to data tracked by FiveThirtyEight. Instead, swing and lightly safe districts are being transformed into incumbent safe havens, giving Republicans a competitive edge over Democrats in the map overall, with 55 seats leaning Democratic and 90 seats leaning Republican.

On the old maps, drawn in 2011, Republicans had 21 competitive seats and 67 solid seats; this go around, only 12 competitive seats remain while 78 are solidly GOP. Democrats can’t bank on the same certainty. Instead, many Democrat-drawn maps have so far added competition, creating six new competitive left-leaning seats and creating no additional safe races.

“There’s concern about competition because Republicans don’t view their ability to compete in a competitive race as very durable,” Doug Spencer, redistricting expert at the University of Colorado’s Bryon White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law, told ABC News. “Republicans did a very good job at gerrymandering in 2010, so they don’t have a lot of room to grow, and they do have a lot of room to lose, so they’re shoring up now as many of these seats as safely as possible.”

Rapidly shifting racial demographics, especially in key swing suburban counties within red states, is one of the motivating factors for GOP-led legislatures to propose redrawn boundaries as to not lose out on seats in future elections to a more diverse voting bloc, even if it means delivering safe seats to Democrats in exchange. Compared with old maps, Democrats so far have picked up six safe seats, while Republicans have two additional ones. This shift can be seen clearly in highly coveted Georgia, where a proposed map pushes two critically competitive Atlanta-area counties, GA-6 and GA-7, squeezing Democrat Rep. Lucy McBath into a heavily conservative district, effectively creating a safe GOP challenge and placing Rep. Carolyn Bourdeux in a secure Democratic seat, respectively. McBath has since announced she will be running for Congress in Bourdeux’s district instead.

“I refuse to let (Gov.) Brian Kemp, the (National Rifle Association) and the Republican Party keep me from fighting,” McBath told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They are not going to have the last word.”

Gwinnett County, a portion of which is in GA’s seventh district, had nearly 90% white residents in 1990. Now, it’s only 35% — a clear threat to potential conservative candidates down ballot, likely to be a part of this round of gerrymandering calculus, redistricting expert Michael Li explained to ABC News.

“The suburbs are becoming much more multiracial than they were in the past and also at the same time, suburban white voters have proven to be much more volatile much more less automatically supportive of Republicans than in the past ad that’s created uncertainty for Republicans,” said Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “Suburbs are dangerous to Republicans in a way that they weren’t before. And so the best play under those circumstances is to circle the wagons and try to hang on to what you have, and to make your districts ultra Republican.”

Such buffer building is present in Texas, a state with rapidly diversifying population growth. New maps in the Lone Star State show a net loss of five competitive seats, with Democrats picking up five safe seats and Republicans picking up two. According to data tracked by 538, Republicans were able to flip seven “light-red seats” (or slightly safe) as well as a Republican-held swing seat into safe seats. Only one race in Texas remains competitive with the newly approved map, a much more advantageous map for Republicans in the state than in years past.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan analysis tool that measures political advantage in redistricting maps state by state, gave Georgia a grade of “C” in partisan fairness, competitiveness and geography. Texas received an “F.”

Midterm competition elimination present in the new maps is likely to “piss off Democrats” says Spencer. He suggested that it’s possible that Democrats may be able to harness the collective anger to spike turnout in the few key competitive races that remain, though it’s unlikely to know this early if impassioned messaging alone is enough to rally in impactful numbers. He agreed that lack of durability, especially in the suburbs, has motivated Republicans to draw districts with incumbency protection in mind.

The immediate impact of less competition is uncertain. Yet Spencer said he is concerned that more safe seats may negatively impact voter engagement and the fundamentals of the democratic system.

“You’re now basically muting the voices of a lot of people who just feel like politics is dead to them,” Spencer said. “If we live in a country where you can’t unelect the people that you don’t support, it’s not a democracy. The core fundamental idea of democracy is elections are a check on the government and without competitive seats it’s just not true.”

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