To hear Democratic leaders decry gerrymandering as part of their current bid to enact landmark voting-rights legislation, you’d think the centuries-old practice was a mortal threat to the republic. But political necessity could soon demand that Democrats drop their purity act. To keep their narrow House majority, they might have to deploy the tactic everywhere they can, and every bit as aggressively as Republicans do.
Nowhere are the stakes higher for Democrats than in New York. The party there has its largest legislative majorities in a century and more sway over more seats than anywhere else in the country. A cutthroat approach to redistricting in New York could eliminate or substantially alter as many as five GOP-held seats—a number equivalent to the Democrats’ entire edge in the House.
The early maneuvering by New York Democrats is already revealing the party’s shaky commitment to its national anti-gerrymandering push, one that has long been rooted less in principle than the Democrats’ passionate message would suggest. What could impede the Democratic effort to make the most of its dominance in New York is not the fear of hypocrisy but the party’s internal politics.
Nationwide, the challenge for Democrats is formidable: The shuffling of House seats as a result of the decennial census is expected to shift power from mostly Democratic states like California, New York, and Illinois to states like Texas, Florida, and North Carolina—all of which will have legislatures controlled by Republicans who will be in charge of drawing new districts. “The bottom line is: If this becomes an arms race, and both parties maximize their advantage in the states that they control, Republicans will come out ahead,” David Wasserman, an analyst for the nonpartisan newsletter The Cook Political Report, told me. The GOP needs to flip just five Democratic seats to recapture the House majority in 2022, and conceivably, the party could gain all of those seats through gerrymandering alone. Wasserman projects that Republicans could net anywhere from zero to 10 seats from redistricting.