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For The Week Of January 20, 2019 Through January 26, 2019

A Look At Districts That Could Be Redrawn For 2020

By Zachary Gorchow
Posted: January 22, 2019 5:04 PM

The legal challenge to the maps Republicans drew eight years ago for the Legislature and Michigan's 14 U.S. House districts has suddenly become the center of the Michigan political universe with news that Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, weeks after replacing Republican former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, is seeking a settlement with the Democratic plaintiffs.

A settlement would mean redrawn lines for the 2020 election cycle, maybe even including elections that year for the Michigan Senate, which ordinarily would not be up for election until 2022 with its four-year terms.

Republicans have gone to battle stations, zeroing in on Ms. Benson and raising the specter of the new secretary of state and the plaintiffs concocting a settlement in secret. The plaintiffs, however, have sketched out the idea of having the Republican Legislature redraw maps subject to court approval.

Ms. Benson does have to tread carefully here because she has made transparency in redistricting a hallmark of her agenda. That said, I covered the 2001 and 2011 reapportionment processes when Republican lawmakers all but rubber-stamped maps their consultants drew up behind closed doors, so there is definitely a pot meeting kettle dynamic in the Republican outrage.

However, at this stage, the plaintiffs are not seeking a rewrite of all 14 U.S. House districts, 38 Michigan Senate districts and 110 Michigan House districts. In October, the plaintiffs identified 34 challenged districts to the U.S. District Court handling the case in the case – nine U.S. House districts, 10 Michigan Senate districts and 15 Michigan House districts.

An email sent Monday from one of the plaintiffs' attorneys to one of the attorney representing the Republican elected officials who have been granted intervening defendant status in the cases suggests a settlement structure where "fewer than" the 34 challenged districts are actually redrawn.

Let's look at those 34 districts and try to get a feel for just how much could change politically.

Some of these districts would not fundamentally change based on the political changes in various regions since the drawing of the maps in 2011 unless there were some wild contortions in the way the maps are drawn, the kind of contortions incidentally that was a huge part of the case Voters Not Politicians made for removing redistricting from the Legislature.

I don't see how the 1st U.S. House District that covers the Upper Peninsula and the northern Lower Peninsula can be redrawn to become legitimately competitive in the current political climate. In 2011, the U.P. was still seen as a 50-50 area and the U.S. 23 corridor in places like Alpena still had a strong Democratic vote. That's not the case anymore. In the previous decade, the 1st had what was then solidly Democratic turf in Bay County that Republicans removed. With the weakening of the Democratic base there, putting it back won't have much punch.

The plaintiffs also have their eyes on redoing the 4th and 5th U.S. House districts, likely moving some of the heavily Democratic turf in the 5th (which encompasses Flint/Saginaw/Bay City) to soften up the heavily Republican 4th (north-central Lower Peninsula) and vice-versa. This has risks from a Democratic standpoint, however. These areas overall are trending Republican. It would take a major change to put U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland) in the 4th in legitimate jeopardy, one that would require making the district of U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) a very competitive district.

Nearly all the Detroit-area U.S. House districts are challenged. But since the filing of the document identifying districts 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 as challenged, Democrats flipped two of them and now control four of those five. Do the Democrats really want to redraw districts for U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), first-term members who won tough races in 2018? There is definitely a way to redraw Ms. Stevens' district and the heavily Democratic 9th U.S. House District of U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Township) to shore up Ms. Stevens' seat, but not Ms. Slotkin's.

The 7th District, held by U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), also is on the list, as is the neighboring 12th, held by U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn). That could get interesting, though a move like placing heavily Democratic Ann Arbor and environs, now in Ms. Dingell's district, into Mr. Walberg's in exchange for Republican-tilting Monroe County, now in Mr. Walberg's, would make Ms. Dingell's seat much less comfortable than it is now.

In the Senate, it will be interesting to see what challenged districts the plaintiffs drop from their list. Do they jettison the 12th Senate District after that was won by now-Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills)? Or is there a way to shore up her seat by giving her some of the territory in the neighboring heavily Democratic 11th held by Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield)? But how would one do that without putting Ms. Bayer and Mr. Moss, who live in neighboring communities, into the same seat?

If the plaintiffs were to amend their list of challenged districts, I have to wonder if they'd like to add the 15th Senate District narrowly won by now-Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) in a much closer than initially expected race. It's unclear if they can do that now, however.

The 10th Senate District in central Macomb is on the challenged list as one would expect. Republicans moved this seat northward in 2011 and made it securely Republican. But the plaintiffs put the heavily Republican 8th District to the north and east on the challenged list, not the strongly Democratic 9th to the south. That will make softening the 10th's Republican leanings more difficult.

The challenged Senate districts also include pairs of districts covering Washtenaw and Livingston counties, parts of Genesee and Oakland counties and the Saginaw-Midland areas. There is some real potential to put new districts in play in these areas that are now solidly GOP.

In the House, the challenged districts offer much less opportunity for Democratic gains in 2020. Of the 15 districts identified, I only see two where redrawing the lines would give Democrats a chance to flip seats – the 91st in suburban Muskegon County and the 94th in suburban Saginaw County. It would be relatively easy to swap heavily Democratic territory from the neighboring 92nd and 95th Districts, respectively, to make the 91st and 94th very competitive.

Of the other seats identified as challenged, some of them Democrats already won in 2018 and others are in areas that have so strongly shifted Republican or Democratic, tinkering with the lines wouldn't really make a difference.

In looking at the challenge overall, the jackpot for the Democrats would be the Senate, where Republicans have held control for 35 years and but for this litigation would be in charge for the duration of Governor Gretchen Whitmer's first term. There's a long way to go in this case, but the potential of a settlement revealed last week has completely scrambled expectations about what the 2020 election cycle could look like.

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