Republicans Emerge From Census With Upper Hand in Map-Drawing

Republicans’ bid to retake the U.S. House next year got a lift from new Census figures that added congressional seats in a handful of states, including Texas, that Donald Trump won in November’s election.

With Democrats holding the House by a slim majority, the numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Monday leave the GOP, for now, in a stronger position -- especially since Republicans control the legislatures that will redraw congressional districts in states with the biggest population changes.

Texas, a Republican bastion, was the big winner with two new congressional seats, while GOP-dominated Florida and Montana each gained one. The swing states of Colorado and North Carolina also gained one each along with Democratic Oregon.

Because the size of the House is capped by law at 435 representatives, those new seats must come at the expense of seven states. That includes Democratic-dominated Illinois and New York, which each lost a seat, as did GOP-led West Virginia and Ohio. And the battlegrounds of Michigan and Pennsylvania each lost a seat, too.

California will lose a representative for the first time since joining the Union in 1850 — but will retain the nation’s largest congressional delegation with 52 members.

The new population counts from the Census Bureau on Monday marked the first step in reshuffling the House of Representatives, a contentious process that will unfold over the coming months. States will redraw their political maps using more detailed, local-level population data to be released later this year.

New York’s loss of one of its 27 House members was by just 89 people, Census officials said.

In the states losing seats, the casualties could be split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But Republicans could press their advantage in the states gaining seats, especially in Texas and Florida.

“Republicans are going to net out an advantage in that trade-off,” Kondik told Bloomberg TV. “They’re states that are competitive to be sure, but they’re states that are dominated by Republicans at the state level.”

The danger for Republicans comes if they overplay that hand.

“If they go too far -- if they get too aggressive, they might draw maps that are good for them in 2022 but start to erode for them in 2024 and beyond,” Kondik said.

Indeed, much of the growth in the Sun Belt is coming from booming Latino populations and from people moving from more liberal states like California, Illinois and New York. Those trends will make states like Texas and Florida more competitive in the long run even as they give Republicans a short-term advantage.

Republicans Emerge From Census With Upper Hand in Map-Drawing

The new distribution of House seats — which also factors into the Electoral College votes that determine the presidential victor — was less drastic than anticipated.

The 2010s saw the second-slowest growth rate in the nation’s history, at 7.4% — just ahead of the 7.3% growth of the 1930s, during the Great Depression. The total U.S. population as of April 1, 2020, was 331,449,281.

The average House seat will now represent 761,169 people, up from 710,767 from 2010.

That stagnant growth and slower state-to-state migration meant that Republicans could have made even more gains if growth trends from earlier in the decade had continued. Texas was expected to gain three seats based on those earlier estimates. Florida would have gained two, and Arizona one.

Estimates Fall Short

Acting Census Director Ron Jarmin attributed that difference to slower-than-expected growth. But the population counts fell short even of the Census Bureau’s own estimates, but within 1%, officials said.

Democrats were spared the loss of a solid Democratic seat in Rhode Island. “Great day to be a Rhode Islander,” tweeted Representative David Cicilline, who avoided having to run against Democratic colleague Jim Langevin in a primary.

Minnesota barely kept all of its congressional seats, picking up the seat New York lost.

The bureau’s release of its count of state populations is the first step in the process of rearranging the 435 House seats among the 50 states to account for population changes over the last decade.

Under the Constitution, the Census Bureau must conduct an actual head count of everyone living in the U.S. every 10 years. The beginning of last year’s count coincided with the beginning of national lockdowns because of the coronavirus pandemic, making it more difficult for census-takers to follow up on residents who didn’t respond.

That’s raised questions about the quality of the data and whether Monday’s counts accurately reflect the population.

“Every decade there is litigation around the census. Generally, when states have litigated they’ve lost,” said Tom Wolf, a census lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “Effectively, the numbers that come out of the Census Bureau becomes the final word on the apportionment.”

By September, the Census Bureau will release data that shows the shifting populations within states, helping them redraw their congressional district maps. That promises to set off contentious debates in states where partisan legislators draw the district lines.

The legal campaigns have already begun. On Monday night, a group of Democrats who focus on election issues, Democracy Docket, said it had sued three states to force them to abandon their old congressional maps and enact ones they consider “fairly and constitutionally distributed.” The suits were filed in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Louisiana.

Republicans Emerge From Census With Upper Hand in Map-Drawing

​Republicans still have a lingering advantage from the 2010 census cycle. The Tea Party movement that year swept Republicans into the U.S. House but also helped the party win hundreds of down-ballot races in state legislatures that redrew congressional district lines that year.

In many states, those same legislators also draw their own district lines — a power Republicans used to further entrench themselves for the last decade.

Recent Democratic successes at the national level have not always translated down-ballot. Despite President Joe Biden’s win, Democrats were unable to flip any state legislative chambers last year.

Republicans gained two: The New Hampshire House and Senate. With Chris Sununu, a Republican, in the governor’s office, the GOP will now have a free hand to draw a map that could give them one of the two New Hampshire congressional seats, both now held by Democrats.

But there will also be a time crunch to get it done. The release of the top-level apportionment data Monday was four months behind schedule because of the pandemic.

The delayed start could create added chaos at the filing deadlines for next year’s congressional elections, as incumbents and their challengers won’t know which districts they’re running for until their campaigns have already started.

It could also convince some House members to retire or run for higher office. On Monday, Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, announced plans to run for the U.S. Senate after conceding that the new maps will make it harder for his Youngstown-area House district to stay in his party’s hands.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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