By Barry Rascovar
Taken together, developments in Georgia (a special election) and Wisconsin (redistricting lawsuit) have been read by some Maryland Republicans as positive indicators that things finally are moving in their direction in a state overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats.
Retaining a Republican House seat in Georgia indicates to this state’s GOP that there’s been no mudslide erosion of support within the party from President Trump’s erratic behavior.
Getting the Supreme Court to jump into the Wisconsin redistricting lawsuit means Maryland Republicans might get their state’s gerrymandered, Democratic-leaning congressional districts thrown out, too.
Yes, hope springs eternal, but a closer look at these two developments paints a far less rosy picture for Maryland’s minority party, outnumbered 2-1 by Free State Democrats.
Expected victory for GOP
The Georgia special election should have not been close. This is a solidly Republican district in the growing Atlanta suburbs that hasn’t had a Democratic congressman in almost 40 years.
In 2014, Republican incumbent Tom Price won by nearly 24%. Yet this year the GOP’s winning margin plunged to 4%.
That shrinkage mirrors similar special elections in Montana and Kansas where the Republican candidates won but not by landslide margins of prior years.
The Trump factor is largely to blame. His controversial early months in office have roiled much of the electorate, even in safe GOP districts. The public’s distaste for Trump hasn’t reached the tipping point yet, which is good news for Republicans.
In Maryland, that’s especially true for Gov. Larry Hogan as he begins to chart his re-election course. The last thing Hogan needs is the Trump albatross around his neck.
This explains Hogan’s unexpected decision to criticize the Senate Republican health-care bill. Polls show nearly two-thirds of Americans dislike Republican health-reform proposals and Hogan doesn’t want to be standing by Trump on the wrong side of this issue.
It’s hard to imagine that a newly elected president could become so unpopular so quickly. Trump in just five months has seen his popularity ratings drop into in the mid-30s. Some recent polls have him in the high 20s.
At this rate, imagine what the voting public will think of the incumbent president when they go to the polls in November 2018.
So while the results of the Georgia special election on the surface look good for Republicans, the narrowness of the victory should scare GOP incumbents in marginally Republican districts, such as the Miami and Philadelphia suburbs.
It underlines Hogan’s delicate balancing act in Maryland: retain absolute loyalty from rank and file Republicans while appealing to independents and moderate Democrats.
So far, Hogan has done a magnificent job avoiding GOP erosion while not losing his broader appeal.
Still, if 2018 becomes a “message election” in which voters across the country let Trump know they don’t like his bizarre performance, Hogan could struggle to win a second term. Separating his own political persona from Trump’s is key.
Gerrymandering meanders into court
Meanwhile in Wisconsin, a redistricting case involving gerrymandered state Assembly districts has made it to the Supreme Court. Republicans in Maryland have their own gerrymandering case in federal court.
Would a victory over gerrymandering in the Wisconsin case mean a huge GOP win in the Maryland case?
That may not be the logical conclusion.
Maryland’s redistricting maps, while grotesque in geographic design, don’t come close to carrying out one-party gerrymandering the way the GOP did in Wisconsin.
That state is marginally Republican. Barack Obama captured the Dairy State in 2012 by 7%, but Republican Gov. Scott Walker won reelection in 2014 by 6%. Last year, Republicans won the presidential vote in Wisconsin by less than 1%.
The 2011 state legislative redistricting map Republicans enacted packed Democratic voters into a small number of districts in the state’s two urban areas – Milwaukee and Madison. That allowed the GOP to create Republican majorities in nearly two-thirds of the state’s Assembly districts –a “baked in majority” of 20 seats. In recent elections, Republicans have gained 15% more seats in the legislature—despite the almost-even split in statewide races.
A district court and an appeals court agreed this sort of gerrymandering goes too far. Now the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the fall.
Maryland’s lawsuit is different
Maryland’s redistricting lawsuit is quite different. Plaintiffs face an uphill battle in spite of the Wisconsin court rulings. That’s because the voter registration numbers don’t appear to support the GOP’s contention that political gerrymandering severely discriminates against Republican voters.
The GOP complains about the 6th Congressional District, which used to be represented by Republican Roscoe Bartlett until Democrats re-drew the boundaries by attaching Democratic parts of Montgomery County to Republican Western Maryland.
Suddenly a district that elected Bartlett with 59% of the vote in 2010, swung Democratic, electing John Delaney in 2012 with 59% of the vote.
Yet that large Democratic advantage didn’t hold up two years later, when Delaney won by just 1.5% of the 6th District vote.
Last year, facing a weaker Republican nominee, Delaney won with 56%.
The voter registration in that district (based on the 2010 Census) is fascinating: 43% are Democrats, 31% are Republicans and the rest, 26%, unaffiliated, Green Party or Libertarian.
It’s a competitive district. If Delaney decides at the end of July to run for governor, the race for his congressional seat could be wide open.
That’s hardly a winning court argument against gerrymandering.
The compact 6th Congressional District
The 6th District also is fairly compact, even with the addition of the Montgomery County precincts (instead of moving directly east the district turns due south).
Moreover, there’s precedent for turning Western Maryland and Montgomery County into a single congressional district: For decades, this was the case with Republicans J. Glenn Beall Jr. and Charles “Mac” Mathias from Western Maryland representing the combined areas – without a peep about unfair gerrymandering.
Republicans also complain about the 3rd Congressional District’s weird shape (like “a winged pterodactyl” according to a lower-court judge). The GOP says this illustrates Democratic efforts to dilute GOP strength, since only 25% of registered district voters are Republicans and 55% are Democrats.
The litigants have a point on the complete lack of compactness. Their argument falls apart, though, over the dilution of GOP strength. It turns out the 3rd District’s party split (55-25%) almost precisely mirrors Maryland’s party split (55-26%).
Republicans may be at a disadvantage in all but one Maryland congressional district. However, that’s due to the GOP’s 2-1 voter registration deficit statewide.
Still, it would be in the public’s best interest for the Supreme Court to get involved, once again, and clearly delineate general rules for redistricting after the 2020 Census.
There always will be political manipulation – by either party. But if the high court rules that all districts must be compact, contiguous and respectful of neighborhoods and natural boundaries, it would go a long way toward straightening out the extreme gerrymandering that plagues far too many states.
Barry Rascovar’s blog is politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.