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Redistricting Primer: Why New Lines Matter in Battle for House Control

Photo by: Christina Bellantoni

The decennial redistricting phenomenon might sound boring, but it’s not.

Roll Call’s longtime politics editor Lauren Whittington tried to convince me of that when I first joined the paper as her deputy in 2010. I was doubtful at first, but it turned out she was right.

Here’s the deal: every 10 years, population gains and losses are calculated and congressional seats allotted to each state are reapportioned. As things are shuffled around, district boundaries shift and lawmakers who represent one area might actually live in another one under the new lines. Eyes glazing over yet? Stay with me.

The process is where things start heating up. In many cases, state legislatures are charged with drawing up the lines, and the party in control at that level is usually at will to do whatever they want with districts held by political rivals. In the case of California, an independent redistricting commission drew up a map that forced several longtime lawmakers to retire, sparked racial spats in Los Angeles and opened up a lot of opportunities for the Democrats itching to reclaim the House this fall.

This year in statehouses across the country, Republicans controlling the mapmaking process shored up some of the most vulnerable freshmen members to make their races a little easier, and shaved friendly voters out of Democratic districts. Democrats returned the favor in states like Illinois.

The political consequences of redistricting can be long-lasting, and ambitious state politicians frequently draw lines with consideration to races on the horizon.

Probably the sexiest outcome in all of this is when members of Congress from the same party are drawn into the same district, putting just about everyone in an uncomfortable position and ensuring that at least one of them won’t return in January.

Consider some of the member-vs.-member primary races that played out over the last few months.

President pitted against an ex-president — President Obama’s backing of Rep. Steve Rothman did not help him in his Democratic primary against Rep. Bill Pascrell, who was endorsed by Bill Clinton.

Intraparty intrigue — In Illinois, Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger defeated Rep. Don Manzullo, thanks in part to an anti-Manzullo super PAC donation from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Will-he-or-won’t-he move speculation — After losing his primary to fellow Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, two-time presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich was keeping his eyes out for other opportunities to remain in Congress. But after a year of speculation, Kucinich opted against moving to Washington State.

Celebrities — Actress Betty White cut an ad for Rep. Howard Berman in his Democratic primary race against Rep. Brad Sherman. Berman and Sherman were the top two finishers in California’s primary last week, and will face off in earnest on Nov. 6.

There are several other big races to watch in this category as members of the same party run against one another, or as two incumbents battle for new territory. Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell’s race against Republican Rep. Tom Latham in Iowa is going to be one of the hottest to keep an eye on.

And don’t forget newly drawn lines forced the retirements of icons like Democratic Rep. Barney Frank in Massachusetts, and Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Heath Shuler in North Carolina.

Judy Woodruff will have more about all of this on the NewsHour Wednesday. But the story lines don’t end there. Make sure to check out Roll Call’s extensive coverage of the landscape, and visit the Rothenberg Political Report for profiles of competitive races.

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