WASHINGTON (AP) — To the naked eye, Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District looks like one of those inkblot tests spilled onto the western suburbs of Philadelphia, twisting and turning as it captures some communities and conspicuously avoids others.
To Republicans, it looks like a safe seat — one of many districts across the country drawn specifically to strengthen the GOP hold on the House.
Republicans are expected to easily maintain their House majority in November’s congressional elections, even as control of the Senate is in doubt. There are several reasons. Among them, President Barack Obama’s approval rating is in the tank, and the party of the president usually loses seats in Congress during midterm elections.
But even without Obama dragging them down, Democrats would face an uphill fight in this year’s House elections, regardless of the political climate.
Republican strategists spent years developing a plan to take advantage of the 2010 census, first by winning state legislatures and then redrawing House districts to tilt the playing field in their favor. Their success was unprecedented.
In states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina, Republicans were able to shape congressional maps to pack as many Democratic voters as possible into the fewest House districts. The practice is called gerrymandering, and it left fertile ground elsewhere in each state to spread Republican voters among more districts, increasing the GOP’s chances of winning more seats.
The first payoff came in 2012, when Republicans kept control of the House despite a Democratic wave that swept President Barack Obama to a second term. The next payoff is likely in November when candidates again compete in House districts drawn by Republican legislators in key states.
Outside Philadelphia, the 7th Congressional District illustrates the Republicans’ success. Before the last census, Democrat Joe Sestak held the seat for two terms and Obama overwhelmingly carried the district in the 2008 presidential election.
But following the 2010 Census, Pennsylvania’s Republican-led legislature stretched the district into rural parts of Lancaster and Berks counties, adding Republican voters while moving some Democrats to other districts.
The result: In 2012, Republican Rep. Pat Meehan carried the district by nearly 20 percentage points. This year, he barely has a race, out-fundraising his Democratic opponent $1.8 million to $9,976.
“It’s one of the more obscene districts in the country,” said Democratic state Sen. Daylin Leach, a voter in the district from Wayne, Pennsylvania.
Critics say gerrymandering lets politicians choose voters rather than the other way around. In many districts, it leads to virtually no choice for voters.
The number of uncontested House races has nearly tripled from the past two elections, to 32 districts this year. An additional 45 districts have candidates from only one major party — also a big jump from the past two elections.
Gerrymandering has a long history in the United States, pursued enthusiastically by both Democrats and Republicans. But the GOP’s success at it this decade has been historic: In 2012, Republicans achieved a 33-seat majority in the House, even though GOP candidates as a group got 1.4 million fewer votes than their Democratic opponents.
It was only the second time since World War II that the party receiving the most votes failed to win a majority of House seats, according to statistics compiled by the House Clerk.
“The fact that Republicans controlled redistricting (after 2010) meant that they were able to build up a wall, stopping a lot of the tide from running out,” said Justin Levitt, a law professor and redistricting expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
How did Republicans gain their advantage? It all started with the party’s sweeping victories in 2010 and a plan called REDMAP, short for Redistricting Majority Project.
The 2010 election was a disaster for Democrats. Republicans picked up 63 seats to win control of the House. They also gained seats in the Senate, though Democrats kept a majority. Perhaps more important, Republicans won control of state legislatures in crucial states.
Every 10 years following the national census, states redraw the boundaries of House districts to account for population changes. Some states gain seats and others lose, so the overall total remains 435. In most states, the legislature and the governor draw up the new districts, which is why political parties pay special attention to elections at the start of each decade.
“I think Democrats made a terrible mistake,” said Matt Bennett, a former aide to President Bill Clinton. “They did not put nearly enough attention or resources into legislative races at the state level.”
For Republicans, it was a combination of luck and planning. The political winds were in their favor, but they also had been plotting for years to take full advantage of redistricting.
REDMAP called for targeting races in states that were expected to gain or lose congressional seats. GOP strategists reasoned that redistricting could have a greater impact in these states because there would have to be more changes to district boundaries, said Chris Jankowski, former president of the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Republicans spent more than $30 million through REDMAP to help elect legislative majorities in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, Jankowski said.
“We’re talking about cable, radio, mail, ground game — very basic stuff,” Jankowski said.
Before the 2010 election, the GOP had majorities in 36 state legislative bodies. Afterward, the party controlled 56, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Jankowski expects Republican candidates to continue enjoying the fruits of redistricting this year. But he notes that people move and populations change. As the decade wears on, the political benefits diminish, and another redistricting battle will loom.
“It has a shelf life to it and it’s usually not the full 10 years,” Jankowski said. “That’s the reason we have a census every 10 years.”
Associated Press senior research coordinator Cliff Maceda contributed to this report.