2020 census: These 7 states show how Republicans could redistrict their way to victory in 2022

After a series of lengthy, pandemic-related delays — and multiple attempts by the Trump administration to meddle with the process — the U.S. Census Bureau finally released its 2020 data on Thursday, painting a demographic portrait of a nation that has become significantly less white and considerably more urban over the past decade.

The real question, however, is how these new numbers will shape the coming fight over redistricting: the fraught process by which states redraw their political maps, often in ways that benefit the party in power — and could ultimately determine who controls Congress after the 2022 midterm elections.

To sort through all the political implications of the new census data, Yahoo News spoke to Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan election forecasting newsletter published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, and author of the forthcoming book “The Long Red Thread: How Democratic Dominance Gave Way to Republican Advantage in US House Elections.”

Kondik’s big-picture read of the results? “They were different [from expectations] in ways that you could argue were a little bit better for Democrats than Republicans,” he explained. “But the Republicans do still have some significant advantages.”


Given the Democrats’ exceedingly narrow majority in the U.S. House, Kondik argues that the GOP could plausibly take control of the chamber in 2022 even if they don’t do any better with voters. “There’s also a world in which Democrats win the national popular vote for the House by 2 or 3 points like they did in 2020 — yet they still lose 10 or 15 seats,” he said. “That’s the power of redistricting.”

Here’s more from Kondik on why that is — and the seven states to keep a close eye on in the weeks and months ahead: Florida, Texas, North Carolina, New York, Illinois, Colorado and Virginia.

Yahoo News: People have probably read some headlines about the census results by now. But which ones are most important politically?

Kyle Kondik: The general takeaway is that the results weren’t as bad for Democrats as some thought they’d be. The Census Bureau is always revising the numbers with estimates over the course of a decade, and so there were 2019 census estimates for all 435 congressional districts. But those weren't the actual census results. The actual numbers that came out Thursday were different than the estimates — and they were different in ways that you could argue were a little bit better for Democrats than Republicans.

How so?

Heading into the census, Democrats were pretty concerned that there would be a significant undercount of Latinos in particular.

Why would that have been a problem for Democrats?

Donald Trump did better with Latinos in 2020 than he did in 2016. But it’s still generally a Democratic-leaning group. So the idea is that if there’s an undercount of a typically Democratic-leaning group — like Latinos — that means that districts that are significantly Latino have to get bigger, because otherwise they would be underpopulated. All [U.S. House] districts have to have roughly the same number of people in them. And that could lead to some Democratic districts having to get bigger, which could have the effect of putting more Democrats into them and making surrounding districts more Republican.

We’re still sorting through the numbers, but at the top line that didn't happen. The Latino count was totally in line with the census estimates. What’s more, the census actually showed a smaller share of non-Hispanic whites than expected: about 2 percent less. And white voters, of course, are more likely to be Republican.

Another big finding is that the U.S. population is gravitating toward metro areas. Is that good for Democrats as well?

The bottom line is that the Democrats are more of an urban, densely populated party. And the places that are growing are generally densely populated places. On the opposite side of the equation, the census also found that 52 percent of all the nation’s counties have lost population over the last 10 years, which is an amazing stat. The big places are getting bigger and the small places are getting smaller.

And just like with the shrinking white population, this also happened more than expected in some places. For instance, New York City’s population turned out to be 600,000 higher than expected. That’s helpful to Democrats as well, because the bigger the Democratic places are, and the more districts those areas end up covering, the more options Democrats have to gerrymander — that is, to slice and dice New York in different ways to try to spread out the Democrats more and help Democrats in more districts. So from that standpoint, the census numbers were also positive for Democrats.

But on the other hand, I don't know if it really changes anything — or changes much — in terms of the overall redistricting picture.

Wait, why?

Because there are many more states and districts that are controlled by Republicans than Democrats — and they can still slice and dice these electorates in all sorts of different ways to maximize their own advantage.

Can you quantify that Republican advantage?

Our count shows that Republicans have total control over redrawing 180 districts. Democrats have total control over just 75. Another 167 will be drawn by nonpartisan commissions or states with divided government.

It’s not as bad for Democrats as it was after the 2010 midterms [when Republicans netted six gubernatorial seats and flipped 20 state legislative chambers]. But the Republicans do still have some significant advantages here.

So what’s next?

In previous cycles we would have had this data several months ago. So now you're going to see a mad scramble to produce new maps in Democratic states, in Republican states and also in the many states that now have commissions — some of whom are doing this for the first time, and doing it in a time frame that they weren’t anticipating when those commissions were created.

Let’s talk about the key states to watch going forward. Earlier this year we learned which states would be gaining seats in Congress (Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, Montana, Oregon) and which would be losing seats (California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia). Where are the major fronts in the redistricting wars going to be?

Those big Southern states are really the ones to watch, for me.

Florida, for instance, is gaining a seat — and Republicans control everything there. The question is how aggressive the Legislature will be, on the assumption that the newly conservative state court will not block them — even though they could be egregiously violating the state constitution, which effectively forbids gerrymandering.

William Marx
An image of a district that once crossed four counties in Pennsylvania is projected on a civics classroom wall. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

What could the numbers out of Florida look like in that case?

There are some Democrats who think they could lose five seats in Florida just based on redistricting alone. Rep. Charlie Crist is running for governor, but his seat could be dismantled. Rep. Stephanie Murphy’s seat could be dismantled. You could maybe see Republicans try to mess with the seat Rep. Val Demings is leaving [to run for Senate] — Jacksonville, Tallahassee, these heavily Black seats.

Now, you start to mess with districts like that and you invite federal lawsuits. The Supreme Court has stayed out of trying to adjudicate partisan redistricting claims, but the federal courts do intervene often on racial gerrymandering claims. So if you either have too many minority voters packed into a single district or if you have a cohesive minority group that is so-called cracked — i.e., split into different districts so they are essentially diluted by white Republicans from the surrounding areas — that’s when the courts overturn maps. Still, I think Democrats are probably most worried about Florida.

What about Texas?

Same goes for Texas. It’s getting two new seats, more than any other state, and we'd expect to see those drawn to benefit Republicans. The Democrats have three seats that cover South Texas, but Donald Trump did a lot better in South Texas, among Latino voters there, than in the past. And so is it possible that Republicans could reconfigure the South Texas seats in such a way that they are able to win one of those seats? That's something to watch.

Also, Democrats picked up some suburban seats around Houston and Dallas under Trump. Will those seats be messed with in such a way that it makes it easier for Republicans to win them back? Or will they be made into safe Democratic seats as a way to make surrounding districts more Republican? The delegation is 23-13 Republican right now. At the very least you'd expect the two new seats to go to Republicans, and quite possibly more than that.

North Carolina strikes me as the other big battleground.

We sort of know what a North Carolina Republican gerrymander would look like, because there was one in place in 2018 that was rolled back by the courts. They could split Winston-Salem and Greensboro back into separate districts. That district is Democratic as currently drawn, but you could split up those communities and Republicans could control the whole area.

A lawmaker with district map
A lawmaker consults a district map during a committee meeting on redistricting in Raleigh, N.C., in 2017. (Gerry Broome/AP)

They also can reconfigure the Raleigh-Durham area — they could maybe eliminate one of the Democratic seats there. Basically, they could revive their old 10-3 Republican gerrymander, but it might be 10-4 Republican instead of 10-3. Right now it’s 8-5.

What about Democrats? Do they have any opportunities to pick up seats with new maps?

Illinois is pretty clean in that sense. Democrats have the power there, and the question is how much they’re going to use it. They should come out of Illinois with a bigger margin than they have right now (which is 13-5).

New York is interesting too. There’s a statewide ballot issue that could make it easier for Democrats to gerrymander. If Democrats there really have the internal party cohesiveness and the willingness to do it, they could probably gerrymander New York and really hurt Republicans there.


It's not hard to imagine what they could do. There are two Republican seats on Long Island. They can reconfigure them in such a way that there's only one. They could take the Staten Island seat that Republicans hold now and instead of attaching conservative areas like Bay Ridge to it, they can attach a much more liberal part of Brooklyn or even Manhattan. That would make it a Democratic district instead of a Republican one. They could reconfigure upstate in such a way to hurt Republicans up there too.

And the fact that New York City has 600,000 more people than expected, that helps. The more people that are in heavily Democratic places, the better for Democrats, because it gives them more options when drawing their maps.

But while that’s a good development for them, I would still say it’s marginal overall. Republicans have the upper hand nationally.

The U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

And part of that is because of independent commissions, right? Especially because they tend to be adopted in states where Democrats could otherwise gain seats.

If there was no independent redistricting anywhere, Democrats would be in a better position. Colorado and Virginia are the two states that stand out in that regard. These are two states that have really moved toward Democrats in recent years because of big, diverse, growing, highly educated places like greater Denver and northern Virginia. And Democrats now have complete control of state government in both places.

If they could just gerrymander those states as opposed to having commissions in both of them, instead of Colorado being 5-3 Democratic, which is what the new map might be, they could make it 6-2 or even 7-1 Democratic. Meanwhile, Virginia is 7-4 Democratic right now. But with gerrymandering, we’d be talking about a durable 8-3 or even 9-2 Democratic advantage.

So bottom line — how big an effect could redistricting alone have in 2022?

You would expect Republicans to come out of the redistricting process with more seats than they have now. Maybe that number is in the single digits, maybe it’s higher. But look, the Democratic House majority is only five seats; Republicans only need five seats to win the majority back. Every one of those five seats could come from redistricting.

Even if Republicans don't do any better with voters.

Yeah. Look, you'd expect Republicans to do better with voters. It's a midterm and a Democrat is in the White House, so there's certainly a possibility that Republicans will win back the majority with many seats. That’s what tends to happen historically.

But there's also a world in which Democrats win the national popular vote for the House by 2 or 3 points like they did in 2020 — yet they still lose 10 or 15 seats. That’s the power of redistricting.


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