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2020 Census results give Republicans a chance to 'crack' House seats in blue cities

Senate Democrats are running out of time to protect America’s blue cities, and the cost of inaction could be a permanent Democratic minority in the House.

With the Census Bureau’s publication of new population data Thursday that will determine how many congressional districts are allotted to each state, the battle over the next decade of congressional representation is officially underway. That data reveals a nation diversifying at the fastest rate ever — a potential demographic nightmare for a Republican Party that increasingly depends on consolidating white, working-class voters to win elections.

The GOP sees an opportunity to try to split up parts of urban blue strongholds and dilute their ballots by making sure suburban and even rural votes are part of the same districts.

Already both Republicans and Democrats have begun jockeying to defend — and expand — the number of congressional seats that are safe for them by ensuring that loyal voters are congregated in sufficient numbers to assure their party victory. But the GOP has identified a new target that it hopes will allow it to reduce the number of Democrats being sent to Congress each year.

Looking at any political map, it’s clear that even in the reddest of states, there are places that still go reliably blue — namely, cities. But with so much of the surrounding population backing Republican candidates, the GOP sees an opportunity to try to split up parts of urban blue strongholds and dilute their ballots by making sure suburban and even rural votes are part of the same districts.

In redistrictings past, Republican-controlled legislatures have often extended urban Democratic incumbents a professional courtesy by declining to “crack” their party strongholds. With the GOP now captured by Trumpism and its corrosive belief that Democrats are not merely opponents but enemies of the state, Republicans are replacing those professional courtesies with brass knuckles.

Republicans now control the redistricting process in 20 states, or 187 congressional districts, compared to only 11 states or 84 congressional districts for Democrats. (The remainder are either evenly overseen by politically split legislatures, offering some protection from gerrymandering, or have district lines drawn by nonpartisan redistricting committees.) What’s worse, Republicans only need to nudge the congressional boundaries in a handful of those states to wipe out Democrats’ hopes of retaining the House of Representatives in 2022.

In a worst-case scenario that sees the GOP split up congressional districts in major cities, Democrats could stand to lose over a dozen House seats previously considered safe. And even under a more conservative approach advocated by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and others, the GOP is still considering gutting almost half a dozen now-safe Democratic districts in states such as Indiana, Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee.

In McConnell’s Kentucky, for instance, Republicans are divided over how far to go during the upcoming redistricting process, which they control in the deep-red state. The more extreme wing wants to crack the Democratic stronghold of Louisville, currently represented by Rep. John Yarmuth. More cautious Republicans like McConnell are willing to settle for smaller changes that reduce Democratic margins while stuffing more Republican voters into hotly contested swing districts.

Make no mistake: McConnell’s caution isn’t rooted in any newfound respect for the integrity of our electoral process. Instead, Republicans are mainly worried about avoiding the costly and embarrassing court decisions that invalidated their most extreme overreaches and potentially turn the line-drawing over to the courts. (Because there is no clear national standard, it’s largely up to individual state courts to determine what an unacceptably biased redistricting map looks like.) So McConnell’s approach doesn’t reject partisan gerrymandering — it just avoids the type of high-profile city-cracking that could land the Kentucky GOP in federal court.

For instance, in 2020, Yarmuth won his Louisville district with a comfortable 62.7 percent of the vote. By turning Yarmuth’s single district into portions of two or three new districts, Republicans could turn his safe blue seat into swing districts and safe Republican strongholds. But the naked politicking of that kind of move would invite dozens of court challenges from outraged Democrats and election integrity organizations, tying up GOP time and treasure in the middle of campaign season.

Yet relying on the Republican-aligned Supreme Court to find a remedy is a gamble that could just as easily backfire on Democrats. In the 2019 case Rucho v. Common Cause, the conservative majority ruled 5-4 that Congress, not the federal courts, must address partisan gerrymandering. As a result, half a dozen Democrat-filed federal cases were tossed out and the gerrymandered district maps allowed to stand. More outcomes like that would be catastrophic both for Democrats and democracy.

For now, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee is fighting back against Republican efforts in a flurry of high-profile lawsuits. The organization, chaired by former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., has said it is committed to countering the Republican plan to split up blue cities.

But the answer to Republican gerrymandering won’t come from enabling a flood of Democratic dark money into our political process. The only durable answer comes in the form of immediate and sweeping policy change at the federal level.

That means passing the long-delayed For the People Act, which addresses not only gerrymandering but a host of other voting rights-related issues that could block Republicans from imposing voting restrictions that could further limit Democratic representation. As the Brennan Center for Justice explains, the For the People Act represents “the most significant effort in American history to rein in gerrymandering and other abuses that have long plagued congressional redistricting.”

The For the People Act gets there by barring redistricting maps that have the “intent or effect of giving a party an undue statewide advantage,” Brennan Center senior counsel Michael Li writes. That would slam the brakes on Republican efforts to undermine Democratic cities while also ensuring a fair map-drawing standard across all 50 states.

The bill helpfully contains a simple, two-part statistical test to determine if the districts are overly biased. If Republican lawmakers are as interested in free and fair elections as they claim, they should be celebrating the chance to enact such a transparent standard. Instead, Senate Republicans filibustered Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s first attempt to bring the bill up for debate.

Facing mounting pressure from within the party, Senate Democrats finally hinted Tuesday that an emboldened Schumer may bring the For the People Act back for a second attempt at passage. But with no hope of GOP support for any voting or redistricting reforms and Republicans Senate numbers strong enough to require any vote to cross the 60-vote filibuster threshold, Schumer’s effort will almost certainly fail.

Senate Democrats are running out of time to protect America’s blue cities, and the cost of inaction could be a permanent Democratic minority in the House. Without resorting to nuclear filibuster reform tactics, Biden, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may be presiding over a devastating loss of Democrats’ most reliable electoral fortresses.