Proposals strive for partisan edge, but raw demographics continue to favor GOP
On the surface, the most obvious aspect of the proposed redistricting maps from DFLers and Republicans is the window they offer on the partisan wish lists of politicos on either side of the debate.
That’s how most observers, for example, are reading the DFL’s plan to put U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Betty McCollum into a single, St. Paul/East Metro 4th Congressional District. A similar reaction greeted a Republican plan to create an 8th Congressional District that stretches all the way across the northernmost part of the state, diluting the regional influence of the DFL-heavy Iron Range.
“There’s nothing inherently surprising about what’s going on,” University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said. “The main thing here is we’re going to continue to get partisan gerrymandering as long as the parties are drawing the maps.”
An independent five-judge panel will, of course, ultimately develop final maps by late February. Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea appointed them to the task because of redistricting gridlock at the Capitol.
But beneath the most common and easily understood political aims of redistricting — protecting incumbents against the impact of population shifts; creating new, party-friendlier districts — the maps proposed last week provide insight into more nuanced political calculations. What’s more, analysts say, the maps make clear that 2012 is the year the state will finally to be forced to deal with population shifts that have been decades in the making.
The outstate dilemma
The most drastic change in the state’s congressional districts could come in Minnesota’s outstate regions, analysts say. Simply put: The dwindling population of greater Minnesota is making it harder to justify devoting three of its eight congressional districts to non-metro portions of the state.
The declines in rural population are not a new phenomenon. But many say 2012 could be the year that demographics, simple math and common sense force a seismic shift in those districts.
“It’s been ignored,” Hamline University law professor David Schultz said. “It’s been coming and perhaps not addressed adequately. Now it has to be.”
This reality has cast a spotlight on the state’s 1st, 7th and 8th congressional districts as currently drawn. The DFL plan would largely maintain the alignment: The 1st Congressional District would constitute much of southern Minnesota; the 8th would remain a northeastern district. The 7th would continue to dominate the west, although the DFL’s plan would extend it farther south, all the way to the Iowa border.
But some point to problems with that plan. The DFL’s proposed 7th, for starters, is geographically very expansive. “The real honker here is [Collin] Peterson’s district,” Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier said. “It goes everywhere.”
Shrinking the DFL’s proposed 7th District geographically while ensuring it has adequate population would necessarily affect the rest of the districts. Such a move would likely require it to claim population from other areas, and in turn perhaps force other outstate districts to grow. That illustrates the difficulty in juggling three largely rural districts.
“You have to balance [the outstate population decline] with a rapidly expanding suburban area,” Schultz said. “The simple answer is that there is no simple answer in how to do this.”
The GOP, for its part, handles the dilemma by creating two stand-alone northern and southern districts, with a reimagined 7th Congressional District covering central Minnesota and anchored by St. Cloud (currently in the 6th Congressional District).
“This is an acknowledgement of a political shift,” Jacobs said. “But is an entire western district [as the DFL proposed] preferable to [the GOP’s] northern district? I don’t know. People will differ on that.”
The single northern district plan prompted howls of protest from DFLers, especially on the Iron Range, but some say the demographics may force the five-judge panel to consider exactly that kind of realignment.
“The GOP map in the northern district is something that the panel is going to take seriously,” Jacobs predicted.
Metro versus suburbs
The metro-area corollary to the outstate dilemma is how to best balance the booming suburbs and exurbs with a mostly stagnant, yet distinct, urban core. It’s this dynamic that points to perhaps the strongest advantage for Republicans — both in congressional and legislative districts.
The demographics are in the GOP’s favor. Republican attorneys already persuaded the five-judge panel to consider a more expansive 11-county metro area rather than the traditional seven-county region. To the original group (Ramsey, Hennepin, Dakota, Washington, Anoka, Scott and Carver), the panel added Wright, Chisago, Isanti and Sherburne counties.
Much of the new metro area — which includes the fastest-growing parts of the state — tends to encompass GOP-friendly territory and lend Republicans an inherent advantage. Still, how the five-judge panel will carve up this territory remains a significant question mark.
“Clearly you’re going to have to create more suburban districts,” Schultz said. “But do they include just suburbs or the urban core, too? That’s the whole debate right there.”
The original Senate district plan passed by the GOP Legislature made use of an expanded metro area in drawing Republican territory ever closer to the metro. And in maps proposed last week, the GOP did the same: Parts of Chisago County would share a Senate district with Lino Lakes, for example. Hastings would be paired with parts of Goodhue County.
The DFL legislative plan, for its part, has little in the way of exurban-suburban-urban mingling. But while the DFL plan is protective of the metro area in legislative districts, it made perhaps the greatest waves by expanding St. Paul’s 4th Congressional District east into Washington County.
That’s exactly the kind of breaking up of the urban, DFL-heavy core districts that should worry Democrats, most say. But in this case at least, the DFL plans for the 4th Congressional District still leave a fairly safe district. A different alignment, though, could easily favor Republicans.
“The idea that Michele Bachmann will ever represent St. Paul, you can put that to rest right away,” Schier said. “But that’s the best [the DFL] can do with the current population configuration.”
The overlooked 7th and 1st congressional districts
While much of the attention generated by the congressional map proposals has focused on the DFL’s proposed 4th Congressional District, the political jockeying with regard to the 1st and 7th congressional districts is also worth watching, analysts say.
Two sets of DFL plans — one backed by party Chairman Ken Martin, and another from a group that includes former state Rep. David Bly and is represented by DFL attorney Alan Weinblatt — look to offer significant help to the precariously situated U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.
Both of these DFL plans make use of a greatly expanded, Canada-to-Iowa 7th Congressional District to shore up the Democrat Walz’s standing. The effort, Schier says, demonstrates DFLers’ recognition of the tough re-election battles the third-term DFLer has fought in the past.
For starters, both DFL plans shunt the more GOP-friendly western third of his district into the 7th. To offset the population lost, both plans then expand Walz’s district north to include Rice County, which is home to the college town of Northfield and the relatively DFL-friendly Faribault. Both areas are now in GOP Rep. John Kline’s 2nd Congressional District. The GOP’s plan for the 1st Congressional District, by contrast, avoids the northward expansion and instead brings in more of southwestern Minnesota.
“Helping Walz is part of the [DFL’s] agenda here,” Schier said. “He hasn’t locked it down fully. He’s had some relatively tough races.”
But the perils of redistricting are apparent in the DFL’s attempts to help Walz. By saving him from contending with GOP voters to the west, they’ve added them to Peterson’s 7th Congressional District. While Peterson is considered much safer than Walz, the result would still be a tougher re-election effort for an incumbent who has held his seat since 1990.
“If you’re Collin Peterson,” Jacobs said, “this would certainly make you break into a sweat.”
While few would bet against Peterson even in a more competitive district — the congressman has come to symbolize conservative, so-called Blue Dog Democrats in Washington — such a change would likely make it difficult for the next Democrat to make a run at replacing Peterson, who is 67.
“It is more vulnerable to eventual Republican takeover,” Jacobs said of the DFL-proposed 7th. “But look what the Democrats have done: By doing that, they help themselves in the 1st.”
And that’s the nature of the process. The political calculus involved in that decision illustrates why Jacobs previously called the entire redistricting process “the most bare-knuckled political brawl we’re going to see.”
“It’s what you’d expect,” he said last week. “This is kind of kindergarten politics.”
The court’s deadline for responses to the submitted maps is Dec. 9. Oral arguments are slated for Jan. 4.
(Click to enlarge)
GOP Congressional Map
DFL Congressional Map
GOP Congressional Map (Metro Area)
DFL Congressional Map (Metro Area)