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Analysis

After Redistricting, Here’s How Each Party Could Win the House

Partisan gerrymandering has continued to skew maps in favor of Republicans, but both parties still have viable paths to win control of the House in future elections.

redistricting
BC/Atlantide Phototravel/obewon/mikroman6/Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Image Source/jskiba/Getty
View the entire Assessing the Redistricting Cycle series

If victory in congres­sional redis­trict­ing is defined as guar­an­tee­ing control of the House, the latest cycle could be considered some­thing of a draw. Under new congres­sional maps, both Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans have viable paths to a House major­ity in coming years, though this is in large meas­ure due to fairer maps drawn by commis­sions or courts rather than line draw­ing in states where politi­cians controlled the pen.

To be sure, Demo­crats are still likely to lose their House major­ity in 2022 given this year’s unfor­giv­ing midterm dynam­ics. But if they do, new maps at least give them some reas­on­able paths to winning it back in future cycles. Like­wise, if Repub­lic­ans do take back the House in 2022, they may well find their new major­ity uncom­fort­ably tenu­ous.

However, an import­ant caveat: While neither party is perman­ently locked out of being able to win a House major­ity, that does­n’t mean the new maps are fair. On balance, partisan gerry­man­der­ing contin­ues to skew maps in favor of Repub­lic­ans, making the path to a major­ity harder for Demo­crats than it would be other­wise. This gerry­man­der­ing, moreover, largely comes at the expense of communit­ies of color, espe­cially in the South.

And line draw­ing may not yet be over for this cycle. In an age of highly polar­ized polit­ics where having control of Congress can feel exist­en­tial, a number of states may decide to redraw maps mid-decade if gerry­manders need shor­ing up or changes to the judi­ciary or law remove a key watch­dog.

The Repub­lican path

For Repub­lic­ans, the road to a House major­ity starts with their contin­ued domin­ance in the seat-rich South, the coun­try’s most popu­lous and fast­est-grow­ing region. Since the south­ern realign­ment of the 1990s and early 2000s, the South has become a crit­ical anchor for the GOP’s hunt for a House major­ity. Before the south­ern realign­ment, Repub­lic­ans had been held to under 200 seats in every House elec­tion after 1956.

At the begin­ning of this cycle, Repub­lic­ans had firm control of redis­trict­ing in all of the South except Virginia, where a new bipar­tisan process would be used, and Louisi­ana, where Repub­lic­ans were just shy of a veto-proof legis­lat­ive major­ity. As in past cycles, they used that power aggress­ively to increase their advant­ages in the region. By further skew­ing maps in large states like Texas, Geor­gia, and Flor­ida, Repub­lic­ans were able to create an addi­tional seven Repub­lican-lean­ing districts and are now favored to win a whop­ping 70 percent of the region’s 155 seats, up from an already command­ing 66 percent before maps were redrawn. In no other region of the coun­try are Repub­lic­ans favored to win as many — or as large a percent­age of — seats. But it could have been even worse for Demo­crats: if state courts in North Caro­lina hadn’t ordered a redraw of a wildly gerry­mandered congres­sional map, Repub­lican domin­ance of the region would have been even more complete.

All told, factor­ing in the six Demo­cratic-lean­ing swing districts in the region, new maps in the South give Repub­lic­ans the poten­tial to win up to 114 seats, just over half the number needed for a major­ity. Most of these districts, moreover, are not just Repub­lican, but solidly so because of a concer­ted Repub­lican strategy to elim­in­ate compet­it­ive districts. After redis­trict­ing, fewer than 1 in 10 Trump districts in the South is compet­it­ive, a far lower percent­age than most of the nation.

The next most import­ant region for Repub­lic­ans is the Midw­est and Great Plains, where they controlled the map-draw­ing pen in 6 of the region’s 12 states. Repub­lic­ans also benefited in a seventh state — Wiscon­sin — when the state supreme court drew maps after a legis­lat­ive dead­lock but largely left in place last decade’s pro-Repub­lican gerry­mander, reas­on­ing that any court-drawn map should limit changes. (Another two heav­ily Repub­lican states, North Dakota and South Dakota, have only a single congres­sional district and did not redis­trict.)

Alto­gether, redis­trict­ing in the Midw­est and Great Plains resul­ted in 62 districts that Repub­lic­ans have a chance to win, includ­ing 43 safe districts. However, new maps in the Midw­est and Great Plains are not quite as favor­able for Repub­lic­ans as old ones. Due to fairer redis­trict­ing in Michigan under the state’s new inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sion, as well as an aggress­ive Demo­cratic gerry­mander in Illinois, the number of Trump districts in the region fell by six, largely offset­ting GOP gains in the South.

In the rest of the coun­try, Repub­lic­ans had little control over redis­trict­ing, making it harder for the party to engin­eer sure paths to a major­ity.

In the Moun­tain states, the coun­try’s least popu­lous region, maps in all but one state were drawn either by commis­sions or under Demo­cratic control. (The one excep­tion was Utah, where Repub­lic­ans drew a gerry­mandered map. In addi­tion, heav­ily Repub­lican Wyom­ing has only a single seat.) Maps in the region give Repub­lic­ans a chance to win between 17 and 22 seats, depend­ing on elec­tion dynam­ics. But in the end, Repub­lic­ans saw no net increase in seats from the region — though it remains to be seen whether a risky Demo­cratic effort to maxim­ize seats in Nevada could back­fire to the bene­fit of Repub­lic­ans in a future elec­tion cycle.

Like­wise, in the heav­ily popu­lated and heav­ily Demo­cratic North­east and Pacific West, Repub­lic­ans did not control line draw­ing in a single state. While new maps in the two regions give Repub­lic­ans the poten­tial to win between 20 and 40 seats in total, only 20 are safe seats that Repub­lic­ans can count on if the elec­tion envir­on­ment were to shift to being strongly pro-Demo­cratic.

However, Repub­lic­ans did score one signi­fic­ant victory in the North­east when state courts in New York struck down the gerry­mandered congres­sional map passed by Demo­crats, order­ing it replaced with a more evenly balanced one drawn by a special master. The effect was to make three Demo­cratic districts compet­it­ive, whereas the original map had none. Indeed, if Repub­lic­ans have a path to a major­ity, they can thank courts and commis­sions that drew two-thirds of all compet­it­ive Biden districts nation­wide and 9 of 11 of the most compet­it­ive. Without these districts, the Repub­lican path to a major­ity would be consid­er­ably more diffi­cult.

In the end, redis­trict­ing provided a reas­on­able but complic­ated path to a GOP House major­ity. To win it, Repub­lic­ans must hold all 208 districts in new maps that Donald Trump would have won in the last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion plus at least some of the 30 districts that Joe Biden narrowly carried that year. That likely will not be hard in 2022 given strongly pro-Repub­lican midterm dynam­ics, but it could prove quite a bit more chal­len­ging in future cycles if the expec­ted swing toward Repub­lic­ans in 2022 in Biden districts is only a cyclical blip rather than a longer-term realign­ment.

The Demo­cratic path

Demo­crats have a very differ­ent path to a major­ity — one that is in some ways easier and in some ways harder than that of Repub­lic­ans.

On the posit­ive side from the perspect­ive of Demo­crats, they start the hunt for a House major­ity with consid­er­ably more safe seats than Repub­lic­ans. While new maps contain 178 districts that Trump won in 2020 by eight or more points (a rough proxy for a safe seat), they contain 197 districts that Biden won by that margin — just 21 seats shy of a House major­ity.

These safe districts are concen­trated in the North­east and Pacific West, two heav­ily Demo­cratic regions where now 116 of the 127 Demo­cratic-lean­ing districts are strongly Biden districts. But Demo­crats also emerged from the redis­trict­ing cycle with 41 strongly Biden seats in the South as well as 40 else­where in the coun­try. This large block of solid Biden seats gives Demo­crats a signi­fic­ant anchor for their efforts to win the House barring a complete elect­oral melt­down or large, unex­pec­ted voter realign­ments. 

But Demo­crats saw efforts to build a secure path to a major­ity stymied when state courts struck down Demo­cratic gerry­manders in New York and Mary­land and ordered them with­drawn. Conversely, Demo­crats also lost oppor­tun­it­ies, at least for this elec­tion cycle, as a result of a state court decision in Ohio allow­ing a pro-GOP gerry­mander to remain in place for the 2022 midterms. Like­wise, federal courts put a pause on Voting Rights Act litig­a­tion in Alabama, Louisi­ana, and Geor­gia that could have resul­ted in the creation of three addi­tional Black oppor­tun­ity districts that likely would have seen the elec­tion of Demo­crats.

Still, maps give Demo­crats multiple roads to a House major­ity this decade. The most straight­for­ward one lies in the 30 districts in new maps that Biden carried by less than eight percent­age points in 2020. If Demo­crats won all or most of these districts (not out of the ques­tion in a good Demo­cratic elec­tion cycle), they would end up with roughly the same number of seats they hold in the current House without need­ing to capture a single Trump district. Altern­at­ively, Demo­crats could build a path­way to a major­ity — or even an expan­ded major­ity — by captur­ing some share of the 30 districts that Trump won by less than eight percent­age points in 2020.

But if on paper Demo­crats seem to have more routes than Repub­lic­ans to a major­ity, there are just as many chal­lenges. Demo­crats’ biggest risk is that many of the compet­it­ive Biden districts are not just compet­it­ive but highly compet­it­ive. Indeed, of the 30 narrowly Biden districts, his median margin of victory was a slim 4.7 percent­age points. With even relat­ively modest coali­tional shifts, many of these seats could easily slip out of Demo­crats’ reach — and not just in Repub­lican wave years. If, for example, Latino or white suburban voters were to drift toward Repub­lic­ans on a long-term basis, many of these districts could become hard for Demo­crats to win. And though it is far too early to draw defin­ite conclu­sions about long-term trends, there are already some poten­tially worry­ing signals for Demo­crats of just such possible coali­tional shifts, partic­u­larly among Lati­nos.

In sum, the good news for Demo­crats is that they can secure a House major­ity simply by winning the 227 districts in new maps that Biden carried in 2020. And even if they lose some of those districts, they have an altern­at­ive path to a major­ity in the 30 newly configured districts that Trump won by relat­ively narrow margins in that elec­tion, many of which are in suburbs that have been stead­ily trend­ing toward the party. But while Demo­crats poten­tially have more paths to a major­ity, they have little room for error. It would take only a small shift to put many districts that Biden narrowly won out of reach for House Demo­crats. Conversely, because compet­it­ive Trump districts are at the edge of being noncom­pet­it­ive, they would need a much greater shift to put them in play.

• • 

In the end, this decade’s maps are not nearly as fair or compet­it­ive as they could be. But at the same time, thanks largely to commis­sions and courts, neither party has a decis­ive long-term advant­age in the battle for control of the House. That, at some level, is a small if not completely satis­fact­ory victory for demo­cracy.