‘Egg on our face’: New York redistricting mess spooks House Dems
Democrats’ hold on the House majority had been growing more tenuous after a spring full of political setbacks. Then came the New York state Court of Appeals.
The state’s highest court struck down Democrats’ most effective gerrymander in a shocking ruling Wednesday, scuttling a map that would have likely netted the party 22 of New York’s 26 seats in an election when they desperately needed every one of them.
The decision has incensed Democrats across the country — particularly since it was delivered by judges appointed by their own party’s governors. Not only does it deprive Democrats of one of their best advantages in an ominous midterm cycle, it also takes the map-drawing process out of their hands entirely, perhaps for the next 10 years.
New York Democrats are already preparing their battle plan to contest the ruling and insist the fight isn’t over. Still, it represents a massive psychological blow for the party that had just weeks ago been celebrating its good fortune after an aggressive redistricting push.
“I don’t think anybody’s gonna have to go to therapy as a result of it. But let’s put it this way: It’s not the kind of news that the Democrats wanted,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat and the one-time leader of the party’s congressional campaign arm.
“Going into a tough midterm, you’re fighting for every yard. And when the referee tells you that you’ve lost yardage, it doesn’t help team spirit,” Israel said.
The legal bombshell comes after several weeks of grim headlines for the party: stubbornly high inflation, President Joe Biden’s stalled agenda and fierce GOP gerrymanders that have either eluded similar legal scrutiny (in Ohio), or are seen as likely to be rubber-stamped by cooperative state courts (in Florida).
Few Democrats believe a favorable New York map alone could save their endangered majority — especially because they were on track to gain as many as three seats and could still pick up some under the new process.
Still, it’s severely weakened morale for Democrats, who have suddenly lost their biggest win of the redistricting battle while facing even stronger headwinds going into November. It’s also the home state of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who leads the House campaign arm and has worked closely with other national Democrats on the party’s redistricting strategy.
In some corners of the party, it’s caused intense frustration — and fingerpointing — about how it could be avoided.
“I think it looks bad. I think we’ve got egg on our face,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), who is retiring from her Long Island seat next year. She was among some Democrats who questioned whether the legislature had overreached when it created a map so heavily slanted toward Democrats when the state constitution placed a check on gerrymandering.
“It didn’t need to be that way,” she said. “We could have made lines that were fair and followed the rules and still have been effective at making sure that Democrats are represented.”
The redistricting mess dominated a discussion of the state’s Democratic delegation during a Zoom meeting on Thursday, according to multiple people on the call. Members expressed concern over the uncertainty and confusion surrounding the process and discussed potential legal avenues for fighting the ruling.
Two seemed to gain the most traction: The state attorney general could offer a legal opinion stipulating that New York’s primary must be held as scheduled in June, ensuring the current maps would stand. Alternatively, the state legislature could ask the state’s appeals court for a motion to reconsider its decision, perhaps in the hopes that it would at least restore the map-drawing power back to the legislature.
“One thing that concerns me constitutionally is the fact that the legislature got solely wiped out of the process,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.). “And the state constitution is very clear on their role.”
Maloney, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, stressed that current law required the primary to be held on June 28.
“That’s the law,” Maloney told reporters Thursday afternoon, citing the state’s scheduled primary date of June 28. “Someone else is going to have to change that federal court order. It’s in effect right now, and the state is bound by it.”
The decision hits hard for Democrats since New York was the largest state where they had total control over the map-making process — their best opportunity to pad their House numbers.
After a bipartisan commission failed to agree on a congressional proposal, the Democratic-controlled legislature took over the process and produced a map that would give Democrats new safe blue seats upstate and on Long Island, while also likely dooming GOP Rep. Nicole Malliotakis in New York City.
Court decisions have upended redistricting with bombshell after bombshell in recent months in blue and red states. Democrats have scored some victories of their own after courts forced Republicans to redraw maps in Ohio and North Carolina to create more opportunity for their opponents.
But neither of those maps are likely to remain in place throughout the decade, thanks to wrinkles in each state’s law. And in other red states from Texas to Florida to Tennessee, Republicans have thus far gotten away with ruthless maps that lock in their dominance.
“I’ll tell you the New York decision — there’s a lot of buzz around it,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), another former congressional campaign arm chair. “You kind of think as Democrats if you have a Democratic-led state that it’s going to turn out OK. And it hasn’t.”
In New York, the new map will be drawn by a nonpartisan special master — with neither party able to sway the outcome.
The maps that were drawn by a court a decade ago led to the election of 19 Democrats in New York’s 27 districts in 2020. The ones that were drawn by the Democratic-dominated state legislature in February would have made their party a favorite in 22 of the now-26 seats.
It’s unlikely the court-drawn maps would be completely disastrous for Democrats in a blue state. But it certainly won’t be as favorable.
“As the ship goes down, we’re screaming norms and precedents. Maybe we should be thinking about what the other guys are doing,” said one New York Democrat who’s been closely following the process and was granted anonymity to discuss the situation candidly.
Consider the districts on eastern Long Island. Held by GOP Reps. Lee Zeldin and Andrew Garbarino: Both have tilted toward Republicans for the past decade. Every map drawn by an outside expert in advance of this year’s redistricting would have left them largely unchanged. Democrats ultimately packed blue voters into Zeldin’s seat and shoved all the red ones in Garbarino’s.
“The districts as they have existed are pretty balanced,” state GOP Chair Nick Langworthy said about those Long Island seats. “The master’s got extraordinary leeway in this situation, but he was hired by a judge to make fairness. So I think you would have a final work product that would show fairness.”
Many potential map configurations would involve the loss of a Republican seat upstate as the size of New York’s delegation shrinks from 27 to 26 due in part to population loss in the region. The four seats held by GOP Reps. Claudia Tenney, Tom Reed, Chris Jacobs and John Katko, who is retiring, could essentially be combined into three.
But it remains to be seen whether the special master will also do what Democrats tried to do, adding Ithaca to Katko’s Syracuse-area swing seat to make it a near-lock for their party.
Asked Thursday afternoon, if he would consider running again now that the state was getting a new map, Katko responded only: “Jeez.”
Democrats also attempted to make Malliotakis’ district far more favorable to their party by swapping out a conservative sliver of Brooklyn and replacing it with Park Slope. Malliotakis’ district will need some changes from its current configuration — Staten Island is not populous enough alone to have a self-contained congressional district — but it’s far from a guarantee that the special master’s lines will be as advantageous to her challengers as the Democratic ones would have been.
“This is the arrogance of Albany that was on display,” said Reed, the GOP lawmaker who is retiring this cycle after 12 years in the House. “Kudos to the judges for not falling prey to that political strategy they were using.”