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’s 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.
Among the reasons are that 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 control of 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.
Geography helped in some states. Democratic voters are more likely to live in densely populated urban areas, making it easier to pack them into fewer districts.
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 to come in November when candidates once 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 is a more Republican-friendly district, albeit one that doesn’t look like any shape you might find in a geometry book.
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 their voters rather than the other way around. In many districts, it leads to almost no choice at all 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 is historic: In 2012, Republicans maintained 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. Democrats gained eight seats but were still a minority.
“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. “They were able to shore up a lot of the districts that had been won by, in many cases, tea party freshmen or other Republican freshmen.”
The Republicans’ advantage will likely fade as the decade wears on and the population changes. In the meantime, lopsided House districts are having a direct impact on the ability of Congress to tackle tough issues.
House districts are drawn so that Democrats and Republicans often represent very different groups of people with different views on divisive issues. That can make it hard to find common ground on issues like immigration, raising the minimum wage and Obama’s health law.
Democrats control the White House and the Senate, though control of the Senate is up for grabs in November. Republicans are expected to continue to control the House, giving them powerful leverage to block Obama’s agenda his final two years in office.
How did Republicans gain their historic advantage? It started with the party’s sweeping victories in 2010 and a plan they called REDMAP — short for Redistricting Majority Project.
The 2010 election was a disaster for Democrats. Voters were angry over bank bailouts, the poor economy, ballooning budget deficits and Obama’s new health law, which had just passed Congress without a single Republican vote. All these issues fueled the rise of conservative tea party groups that backed Republican candidates up and down the ballot.
Obama called the election “a shellacking.”
Republicans picked up 63 seats to win control of the House. They also gained seats in the Senate, though Democrats kept their majority.
Republicans won control of legislatures in pivotal states, giving the party an edge that will continue paying dividends until the next census in 2020.
Every 10 years following the census, states redraw the boundaries of House districts to account for population changes. Some states gain seats and others lose them, 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. They did not put nearly enough attention or resources into legislative races at the state level,” said Matt Bennett, a former aide to President Bill Clinton. “A bunch of these legislatures slipped by very narrow margins, and some of them flipped for the first time since Reconstruction in the South.”
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 statehouse races in states that were expected to gain or lose congressional seats following the 2010 census. 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, which heads up the party’s national effort to elect candidates to state offices.
Republicans spent more than $30 million through REDMAP to help elect legislative majorities in states like Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Jankowski said.
In Pennsylvania, REDMAP spent nearly $1 million on three state House races, winning all three and helping Republicans win a majority in the Pennsylvania House.
Similar scenarios played out in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. In North Carolina, Republicans won control of the entire state legislature for the first time since the 1800s.
“We targeted the resources to have maximum impact on congressional redistricting,” Jankowski said.
The strategy worked. In almost half the states, Republicans won control of the entire redistricting process. They gained control of at least one legislative chamber in other states, limiting Democrats’ ability to draw districts favoring their candidates.
Democrats’ statehouse losses in 2010 were “a catastrophe that is going to have a much bigger impact on Obama’s second term than the congressional elections that year did, because it’s much more durable,” Bennett said.
In all, Republicans controlled the process of drawing the boundaries for 210 House districts, compared to just 44 districts where Democrats had control, according to statistics compiled by Levitt. The rest were drawn by divided government, the courts, or in a handful of mostly western states, by independent commissions.
Six states illustrate the Republicans’ advantage in House elections: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and Florida. Obama won all six in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. But the House delegation for each of those states is overwhelmingly Republican.
It might seem like voters split their ballots — voting for a Democrat for president and a Republican for Congress. But that’s not what happened.
To help analyze voting patterns in congressional districts, The Associated Press divided the votes from the 2012 presidential election into all 435 House districts.
Because Obama got the most votes, you might think he won the most congressional districts. But he didn’t.
Nationally, Obama received nearly 5 million more votes than Republican Mitt Romney. But in some states, large numbers of Obama’s votes were packed into heavily Democratic congressional districts. As a result, Romney won 17 more House districts than Obama.
Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and Florida accounted for the entire disparity. In each state, Obama won the statewide vote, but Romney won the most congressional districts.
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.