WASHINGTON, D.C. – Ten years ago, a small group of Ohio Republicans huddled in a Columbus hotel room they called the “bunker” with census data and a mapmaking program to redraw Ohio’s congressional maps to their party’s maximum advantage.
In a state where the Democratic share of the presidential vote hasn’t fallen below 40 percent since George McGovern’s 1972 loss to Richard Nixon, Republicans left Democrats with just 25 percent of the state’s 16 congressional seats.
When redistricting begins again later this year, Democrats hope that a new map-drawing process approved by Ohio voters in 2018 as a way to eliminate gerrymandered districts will bring the state’s congressional seat ratio more in line with the proportion of the state’s Democratic voters. Because Ohio’s population hasn’t grown as quickly as other states, the Census Bureau announced Monday the state’s congressional seats will be reduced to 15 for the 2022 elections, as more populous parts of the country gain seats.
While political analysts expect the new rules will provide a more regular shape to some of Ohio’s most peculiarly configured districts – such as the duck-shaped 4th district represented by Champaign County’s Jim Jordan – they expect Republicans will still find a way to stack the deck in their favor.
The stakes for doing so are high, as every congressional seat matters to Republicans in Washington who are eager to regain House of Representatives control in the 2022 election. The new Ohio rules allow the state’s GOP-controlled legislature to approve temporary congressional maps that would be good for just four years by a simple majority if the bipartisan procedure set forth by voters doesn’t produce a consensus map. That’s what many political operatives predict will happen.
Don’t bet on Democrats gaining seats
University of Virginia political analyst Kyle Kondik, an Ohio native who serves as managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, anticipates that three safe Democratic seats will be created in the redistricting process – one centered in Cleveland, another centered in Columbus, and a third centered in Cincinnati – with Republicans continuing to hold their current 12 seats.
“I think, with the way Ohio is now, a ‘fair map’ would probably be 9-6 Republican, or 10-5 Republican, but I would expect Republicans to probably have more of an advantage despite this new system,” Kondik recently told the Cleveland Club of Washington.
Kondik and other political prognosticators anticipate dismantling of the 13th Congressional District seat that Niles-area Democrat Tim Ryan will leave to run for the U.S. Senate, with much of its turf absorbed by districts to the north and south now represented by Republicans Dave Joyce of Bainbridge Township (14th district) and Bill Johnson of Marietta (6th district).
“When it was first drawn, it was drawn to essentially be a safe Democratic seat, taking in a bunch of Democratic voters in Northeast Ohio,” Kondik says of Ryan’s district. He said Republican former President Donald Trump’s 2020 performance in the district indicates “it’s really not even that safe a Democratic seat anymore. But it will probably be ripped apart in in the redistricting process.”
Kaptur’s district a likely target
Baldwin-Wallace University political scientist Thomas Sutton and others expect Toledo Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s “snake on the lake” 9th district will be split up as well, with all its Cuyahoga County portions absorbed by the 11th district that Democrat Marcia Fudge of Warrensville Heights represented before becoming U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Its remaining lakefront turf could go into nearby districts represented by Republicans Jordan, Anthony Gonzalez of Rocky River (16th district) and Bob Latta of Bowling Green (5th district).
Republicans drew the district along Lake Erie between Cleveland and Toledo a decade ago as a way to force out Kaptur or former Cleveland Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, whom Kaptur bested in a 2012 Democratic primary, when Ohio lost two congressional seats after the 2010 Census.
The 2012 remap also put former Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton of Copley Township into the same GOP-leaning district as former Republican Rep. Jim Renacci for a contest Renacci won. Gonzalez now represents that district. To safeguard Republican-held districts in the Franklin County area, the remap put a big chunk of the county’s Democratic voters into a new 3rd district that was won by Democrat Joyce Beatty of Columbus. It also put Beavercreek Republican Rep. Steve Austria into the 10th congressional district with Dayton Republican Rep. Mike Turner, prompting Austria to retire rather than run against Turner.
Cook Political Report redistricting analyst David Wasserman, whose nonpartisan newsletter analyzes congressional elections, said that one reason Kaptur’s district will be in the crosshairs again is that the Toledo area votes more Republican than it used to.
“Even if you were to draw a district centered on Toledo, as Kaptur’s district used to be, it would only have gone for Biden by a point or two,” says Wasserman.
Kaptur – the longest serving woman in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives – released a statement on Monday that said Ohio’s legislature and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine “have an obligation to the voters that Ohio will adopt bipartisan map drawing,” and declared that “every single Republican in power at the state level in Ohio” should be held accountable to that promise.
“If Republicans follow the law and honor the will of Ohio voters, we can have fair districts that accurately reflect the political makeup of our state and make Ohio much more competitive politically,” added a statement from Ohio Democratic Party Chair Liz Walters.
Will Republicans be able to limit Democratic seats?
Wasserman is skeptical that Democrats’ redistricting wishes will come true. He says Republicans in Ohio might be able to limit Democrats to as few as two safely Democratic congressional seats – Beatty’s Columbus-centered district and Fudge’s former district – if they’re seeking the greatest advantage for their party.
Even if all of Democrat-leaning urban Cincinnati goes into one district, Wasserman said Republicans could keep control of it by putting the city in the 2nd district that Cincinnati Republican Brad Wenstrup currently represents, and counterbalancing it with Republican-leaning turf stretching as far east as Portsmouth. In that scenario, the rest of Hamilton County could go into a safe Republican seat for incumbent Steve Chabot of Cincinnati, who represents the 1st district.
However, splitting Hamilton County, where President Joe Biden defeated Trump by 57% to 41%, in a way that would keep the Democrats from winning a seat there appears highly difficult.
Under the gerrymandering reform and based on the most recent population estimates, Cincinnati cannot be split, and efforts must be made to keep one district wholly within the county, said Richard Gunter, a professor emeritus of political science from Ohio State University who worked closely on the reform language. Only about 30,000 Hamilton County residents would be left over to be split into other counties.
Upper Arlington Republican Rep. Steve Stivers’ upcoming retirement to head the Ohio Chamber of Commerce means his territory will be represented by a new Congress member when redistricting occurs, so the 15th district he currently represents could be altered significantly “if they need to move incumbents around,” says Wasserman.
Turf represented by any other Congress members who retire or seek other offices before the maps are drawn would also be ripe for redistribution. Dayton’s Turner says he’s weighing a run for U.S. Senate, and weak first quarter campaign fundraising from Holmes County Republican Rep. Bob Gibbs has fed speculation he won’t seek re-election in the 7th district.
Jordan’s duck-shaped district will likely be reshaped, but Wasserman says “there’s too much Republican turf in west central rural Ohio for him to not have a seat.”
“One way or another, Jim Jordan will have a safe district to run in,” said Wasserman. ”Nobody wants to primary him.”
Wasserman believes there’s a strong chance Ohio’s untested redistricting process won’t create the neutral maps its designers intended because there’s too much incentive for Republicans to push through a partisan map that would be good for just four years. While Democrats seem confident that the Ohio Supreme Court would act as a backstop against a really aggressive gerrymander, Wasserman doesn’t think that’s a sure thing.
“If there’s one district that’s entirely in Hamilton County and includes all of Cincinnati, that would be a Democratic pickup,” says Wasserman. “If Republicans are drawing the map, that is probably not going to happen. Likewise, there could be an additional competitive seat in the Columbus suburbs, a competitive seat in Akron and a seat in Toledo. That would be as many as four or six seats for Democrats out of 15. And that’s a big swing from two seats. There is a lot on the line in Ohio.”
The new rules
The new redistricting rules imposed by the 2018 reform require that at least 65 of Ohio’s 88 counties remain in a single congressional district, allow up to five counties to be split between three districts and let 18 others be split two ways. They require that efforts be made to wholly contain a single district within the state’s three largest counties: Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton.
Cuyahoga is now home to four separate districts, none wholly in the county. Hamilton County has parts of two districts. Of Franklin’s three current districts, only Beatty’s is totally within the county.
The new limits also say that Cleveland and Cincinnati can’t be split between multiple districts, as both are currently. The large-city rule doesn’t apply to Columbus because Columbus is too big to fit in a single district, but reform language requires “a significant portion” of Columbus to be in one district.
The legislature still has control over approving the new map, but the new rules require 50 percent support from members of each of the two major political parties. If that fails, the work will be turned over to a separate, seven-member commission of statewide elected officials and representatives from the legislature. But that commission cannot approve a new map without at least two votes from each party.
If that fails, the legislature eventually could approve a new map without any minority support, but that new map would be good for just four years instead of the usual decade, and added requirements would be imposed in an attempt to protect local communities and the party in the minority.
Why gerrymandering is problematic
The Republicans who drew Ohio’s current congressional districts 10 years ago maximized their numbers by packing as many Democrats as possible in the fewest possible districts. The rest of the state’s Democrats were put into safely Republican districts where they were so outnumbered their votes would be unlikely to sway elections.
The theory behind this year’s procedure is to produce districts that are more electorally competitive and more geographically compact.
University of Akron political scientist David Cohen observes that not a single one of Ohio’s current congressional seats has switched parties in the decade since they’ve been drawn. That means party activists who vote in primary elections select the state’s congressional representatives, rather than general election voters.
“That’s an abomination for a representative democracy,” says Cohen. “If congressional seats are not competitive, what’s the point of having elections? Politicians are picking their voters, not the other way around. That’s unethical and really, it is immoral for a democracy to function that way. When we have that situation, representatives aren’t accountable to their voters.”
The fact that Summit County is split among four congressional districts can make it an afterthought for all its representatives, presenting the possibility that it won’t be a priority for any of them, Cohen says.
“This new redistricting process will be fascinating to watch,” says Cohen, who suspects Republicans angered by Gonzalez’s vote to impeach Trump might try to unfavorably alter his district as payback. “If the parties can’t agree on a map, it will mean the districts will last for only four years and in 2025, thy will have to go back to the drawing board and do it all over again. That’s in nobody’s interest.”
Democrats aim for input
The Census Bureau won’t be able to supply the local population data needed for redistricting for several months due to coronavirus-related delays in the decennial population count, but Democrats already have a good sense of what they want.
They say they should keep the four seats that would be safe for Democrats if the letter of the new law is followed: the new Cincinnati district, as well as the Fudge, Beatty and Kaptur districts. They also believe districts in the Akron/Canton region and Columbus area could be drawn in a way that would be competitive enough for them to win.
Katy Shanahan, who serves as Ohio state director of All on the Line, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, says her organization is trying to increase public engagement in every step of Ohio’s redistricting, and build public awareness of gerrymandering’s negative effects. As the mapping process unfolds, her organization will publicize opportunities to engage in the process “so what comes out in the end are fair maps that are representative of Ohioans.”
She says gerrymandered legislative districts increase polarization, and impede progress on issues the public cares about.
“The solution is to fight for the fair maps that we deserve,” says Shanahan.
Ohio Senate Minority leader Kenny Yuko, a Richmond Heights Democrat, said he anticipates holding redistricting hearings all over the state this summer to get citizen input on how districts should be drawn.
“If somebody wants to have a ‘behind the door,’ we can’t stop them,” said Yuko. “It’s human nature to try to skirt the issue.”
Yuko and Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes, an Akron Democrat, told reporters Friday they hope the state will produce a 10-year map. Sykes said that forcing a four-year map would be a decision made solely by Republicans.
“We are happy to be a part of this process, want to be a part of this process and think that the best version will be one in which both parties are able to fully participate and agree to something that can give us a 10-year map,” said Sykes.
Adam Kincaid, who serves as executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, said his organization coordinates with Republicans in all 50 states to make sure they’ve got the tools and information they need to draw maps that comply with federal and state laws. If Republicans need to file redistricting lawsuits, Kincaid said his group can connect them with attorneys.
He said his organization hasn’t dedicated staff to Ohio because the state’s Republicans already “have a great staff and people who know what they’re doing.”
His organization also isn’t engaging in the sort of redistricting-related activism that its Democratic counterpart is doing in Ohio. Kincaid says Democrats are “trying to show up at committee hearings and that sort of thing” because the state’s political representation means their party won’t have as much control over the process as Republicans.
“The nature of our engagements are different,” says Kincaid. “Republicans have control over the legislature and the ability to draw the lines. They don’t have that control. It is a different strategy for them.”
Rich Exner, data analysis editor for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, contributed to this story.
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