Nov 6, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The limitations of gerrymandering

A hand drawing gerrymandered maps

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

One of the paradoxes in breaking down the map of House races this year: Gerrymandering reduced the number of traditional swing seats on the board. But the potential for a sizable Republican wave has turned many otherwise-safe seats into competitive battlegrounds.

By the numbers: In 2020, there were 51 House districts that backed either President Biden or former President Trump by five points or less. This year, only 34 districts fit those categories.

  • But the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter rates 64 House seats as either toss-ups or "leaning" in one direction — meaning there are a historically high number of competitive races.
  • Democrats are playing defense in the majority of those seats (44).

Zoom out: If Republicans only won the districts that Trump carried, they'd be in the minority. Even if they carried all the seats that Biden won by five points or less, they'd still only have a majority of 224 (R+11) — hardly a comfortable outcome for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

  • "Success this cycle required us to expand the map into double-digit Biden territory," said Dan Conston, president of the McCarthy-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund.
  • To that end, CLF spent a total of $57.7 million in races that Biden carried by double digits, according to Conston. That's nearly four times the amount of money the super PAC spent in districts Trump carried ($15.8 million).

Between the lines: Several of the states in which Democrats controlled the redistricting process could end up becoming "dummymanders" — a term describing an attempted gerrymander that backfires.

  • In Oregon, Democrats are at risk of losing three of their House seats despite drawing a map to protect the party's dominance in the state delegation. Democrats have already stopped spending for their candidate in Oregon's 5th, a district Biden carried by nine points.
  • In Nevada, all three Democratic-held House seats are in danger of flipping, even with a map drawn to protect their incumbents. A new Emerson College poll found Republicans were ahead in three of the four statewide House seats, with Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford in a close contest against Republican Sam Peters in the fourth.
  • Even in Illinois, the Democratic-drawn political map is suddenly looking a bit shaky. Republicans are running competitively in the seat of retiring Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos. Meanwhile, the Cook Political Report moved two seemingly safe seats in the Chicago suburbs (Illinois' 6th and 14th districts) into more-competitive "lean Democratic" territory this week.

The bottom line: If Democrats lose control of their House majority, gerrymandering won't be the culprit. The political environment will often disrupt the best-laid plans (or maps!) of both parties.

Go deeper