The Democratic Party’s strategy for retaking the House in the 2018 midterm elections is becoming clear and it runs primarily through three states- California, New York and Pennsylvania. Although Pennsylvania barely went for Trump in 2016, this writer considers it more a blue state as recent elections outside 2016 indicate. So, the strategy involves making gains in these blue states and chasing Republican incumbents (or winning open seats) in order to increase their chances elsewhere through more targeted attacks. In essence, the Democrats are not necessarily trying to win over voters in red or even purple states. That makes sense since their message is old and stale. This article will focus on Pennsylvania since California and New York have unique circumstances different from Pennsylvania.
In January, the state Supreme Court ruled that the current congressional district map adopted by the GOP-controlled legislature in 2012 violated the state constitution in that it was grossly gerrymandered to benefit Republican incumbents. The state GOP appealed to the US Supreme Court on an emergency basis. That appeal was denied since SCOTUS generally defers to state supreme courts in rulings involving state constitutional violations. Further, there are two political gerrymander cases before the Supreme Court in their current term that may clear up this controversy. After the state legislature refused to turn over materials to the state supreme court by February 15, the court created and published a new map.
In some sense, the new map makes greater geographical sense. For example, under the old map, Montgomery county- a growing suburban county of Philadelphia- which was more blue than red was cut up among five districts. The new map all but makes Montgomery county its own district now with only two thin slices given to neighboring districts to capture the required population. Likewise, Allegheny county (Pittsburgh) which was spread among three districts formerly, now two. Erie county in the northwest was split among two districts, but now lies in a single district. In short, there are fewer counties split between districts now. Under the old map, the splitting of counties among different districts was especially pronounced in the Philadelphia suburbs; now, not so much.
The current House delegation favors the GOP 13-5. One can find analysis, I am sure, at the Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and elsewhere about the possible effects of the new map come November. This writer uses criteria similar to the Cook PVI to determine my own (which mirrors the Cook PVI in many instances), but then I factor in congressional race results to determine, I believe, a more accurate indication of party possibilities come election time. For example, a district may vote Democratic by 8 percentage points in presidential elections, yet have a Republican representative that wins by 20 points. I care less about the overall score and more about the incumbent’s chances and that is where the 20 comes in. Of course, if that incumbent is not running for reelection, all bets are off.
Under the old map, according to the Cook PVI, there were nine GOP districts, five Democratic and four swing districts (defined as a PVI of three or lower). Under my system, which incorporates congressional results, there were 11 GOP districts, 5 Democratic and two swing districts. Under the new map, it mirrors the Cook PVI findings. Looking strictly at the new districts, the Democrats appear to gain an advantage 9-8 (with one swing district). Considering that the current House delegation favors the GOP 13-5, this would indicate a five seat loss for the GOP.
The primary reason for this is the redistricting in southeast Pennsylvania involving the Philadelphia suburbs under the court-drawn map. It is interesting to note that under the old map, the average PVI of a Democratic district was 39.5 versus 17.6 under the new map. Under the old map, the average GOP PVI was 12.9 versus 24.7 under the new map, but that is attributable to there being less GOP districts now. In other words, the strong GOP districts got stronger and the strong Democratic districts got weaker.
Of the 13 Republican incumbents, nine are considered safe under the new map (all five Democrats are safe). That leaves four vulnerable Republican incumbents. Further complicating the scene is that several Republicans and one Democrat are not running for reelection in 2018. It will be important to watch voter turnout in the primaries in this state in the new districts to get a feel of how this new map may affect outcomes in November.
In summary, the Pennsylvania supreme court has created a new map that makes greater geographical sense and that appears to give the Democratic Party an opening to make some gains in 2018. How this plays out will be closely watched. One thing is certain: the Democrats have been handed a small gift here. Whether they take advantage in November is the big question.