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As Democrats make redistricting gains, Senate GOP still opposes a ban on partisan gerrymandering

Top Republicans have complained about aggressive gerrymandering by Democrats in states like New York, but there's little appetite to bar the practice.
Image: Lindsey Graham
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., listens during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 5.Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Democrats are seizing opportunities in states like New York to draw friendly House districts aimed at knocking out Republican incumbents, making unexpected gains in the decennial practice that the GOP has dominated over the last 10 years.

Even so, Senate Republicans say they still have no interest in new federal legislation to ban partisan gerrymandering. And the recent Democratic gains haven't swayed them, even as the Cook Political Report found last week that Democrats are "on track to net two to three seats from new maps alone."

"That's just the way the game has always been played," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said with a shrug.

Asked whether he'd support federal legislation to limit partisan gerrymandering, he said: "Nah, just the courts can handle it."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he doesn't support new legislation to put guardrails on gerrymandering.

"I don't have any silver bullets for it," he said. "The main protection is the Voting Rights Act in minority voting districts. Other than that, it's pretty much the wild, Wild West."

The cycle isn’t over yet, and the balance of power could still change as battles play out in courtrooms and remaining states.

But regardless of which way it swings, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chair of the GOP's Senate campaign arm, said in an interview that Congress should stay out of redistricting battles.

"I think we should leave it to the states to figure it out," he said.

The House has passed H.R. 1, the For the People Act, and the Freedom to Vote Act, which would set new rules against the practice of drawing districts to benefit one party or the other. The Freedom to Vote Act has 50 votes in the Senate but lacks a path around the 60-vote threshold, having stalled because of unanimous Republican opposition.

Republicans — who oppose many of the voting provisions in the far-reaching bill — say they aren't interested in breaking off the redistricting limits to pass separately.

"I think it's best left to the states," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of the Republican leadership. "And the states go too far. The courts have every right to step in — and often do."

Republicans are going to court to challenge a New York state map Democrats approved last week, which creates 22 districts that lean Democratic and just four that lean Republican. In a cruel twist, New York Republicans are feeling the pain that their counterparts across the country mercilessly inflicted on Democrats over the last decade.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., accused Democrats of trying to "cheat" in New York and said on Fox News that the GOP "very well could" lose up to four seats as a result of the new map.

Former President Donald Trump lamented in a statement last week that "Republicans are getting absolutely creamed with the phony redistricting going on all over the Country."

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., the chair of the Democrats' House campaign arm, who advocated for an even more aggressive gerrymander in a recent memo, defended his state's decision when he was asked about the Republican charges of hypocrisy.

"I'd ask them why every one of them voted against H.R. 1, which would have banned gerrymandering," he said.

Among the opponents of the House's anti-gerrymandering measures is Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, whose Staten Island-based district is being carved up and redrawn to help Democrats.

Asked whether, in light of that, she'd favor new federal legislation to bar gerrymandering, Malliotakis said: "These maps should be nonpartisan maps. OK? It's not good, regardless of which party is in control, to be drawing politically gerrymandered districts.

"It's the people that should be deciding who their representatives are, not the other way around," she said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Republicans can drop their filibuster of the Freedom to Vote Act if they want to abolish partisan gerrymandering.

"Unilateral disarmament really doesn't work," Blumenthal said. "We have to play by the rules that exist, even as we want to change the rules, to protect against exactly this kind of abuse."

Referring to the bill that failed after senators split along party lines, he said: "We brought it to the floor. And if there are any takers, we could do it again."