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Democrats' revenge in 2012: a radical Illinois gerrymander

Illinois' redistricting plan is poised to turn half a dozen Republican seats Democratic and could help Democrats retake the House in 2012.

By Mark Greenbaum / June 8, 2011


Coming off of last year’s midterms, Democrats wearily eyed Illinois as the only state where they could achieve wide redistricting victories. The only question was whether the state’s leadership, which had contributed to a string of recent political failures, would impose lines that could impact the national balance of power. The plan released late last week and already passed through the legislature indicates that state Democrats are prepared to do just that.

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If passed into law, Speaker Michael Madigan’s map could turn half a dozen red seats blue, provide an enormous boon to congressional Democrats as they seek to retake the House, and would represent Democrats’ most bold redistricting play in decades.

Democrats in 2010 were denied control of congressional map-drawing in virtually every big state. The passage of Proposition 20 in California stripped the legislature of redistricting power just as the party had finally won back the governorship. Similarly, the Republicans’ recapturing of the New York Senate deprived Empire State Democrats of a long-awaited bonanza.

RELATED: Redistricting 101: Eight facts about redrawing the US political map

The further loss of governorships or legislatures in Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and elsewhere either blocked Democrats’ from protecting current favorable draws, or worse, gave Republicans carte blanche to impose heavy GOP-friendly maps and preserve tenuous freshmen seats for the next decade. Illinois was the one large state where Democrats maintained one-party dominance.

A major shift to come

Even a cursory glance at the new map – which is on a fast-track and only needs Governor Pat Quinn’s (D) signature for passage – seems to indicate that state Democrats are eager to exercise that control to maximum benefit. While each member of the Democratic delegation was protected, nearly every Republican district was cut apart or shuffled around, inviting scores of intraparty primaries, or forcing GOP incumbents to run in Democratic strongholds or retire.

What is now an 11-8 GOP delegation could turn into a 12-6 or perhaps even 13-5 Democratic advantage (Illinois is losing one seat in the census). Freshmen GOP Representatives Bob Dold, Bobby Schilling, and Joe Walsh, and long-time GOP House veterans Judy Biggert, Don Manzullo, and Tim Johnson would all find themselves in danger of losing their seats, and only Peoria Republican Representative Aaron Schock could feel reasonably comfortable about his future within the confines of the proposed lines.

And these changes would create a raft of larger political implications.

With Democrats growing more optimistic on retaking the House, a six-seat pick-up would be a significant step toward achieving the necessary 24-seat gain. Naturally, redistricting rounds in other states like Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, and Pennsylvania are expected to hack off one blue seat each, but even at worst, Illinois’ new map could limit Republican redistricting gains (not even considering potential victories in California and Florida, which should end up narrowly favoring Democrats).

A history of gerrymandering defeat

More broadly, the Prairie State plan would arguably be Democrats’ most cutting reapportionment after a generation of repeated disappointments. Part of this record comes from bad timing: Over the past 30 years, Democrats have not enjoyed unilateral control in California, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and elsewhere – states where a well-crafted gerrymander could yield the most seats.

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