House Republicans failed to win the House on Election Day. But their earlier wins in the redistricting wars may still be enough for them to flip the House.
Republicans aggressively gerrymandered a number of states over the past two years, redrawing congressional district lines to give them new seats, protect their vulnerable incumbents, and go hard after Democrats in states like Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Texas. Democrats tried this as well in many places—but their efforts were stymied by court decisions in places like New York and limited by blue- and swing-state measures designed to end gerrymandering, the process where politicians get to pick their voters by redrawing political boundaries.
The result: Long before Election Day, Republicans had already given themselves a big advantage at winning a House majority in an evenly balanced national political environment, which 2022 turned out to be.
Right now, Republicans have won or lead in 220 House races while Democrats have won or lead in 215—a split that, if it holds up, would give Republicans a narrow three-seat majority in the House, the smallest House majority since 1930. That would represent an eight-seat pickup for the GOP if it holds—a gain that can be entirely chalked up to their gerrymandering wins.
It’s clear that the national political environment, as polarized and tense as it was, turned out to be largely evenly balanced. But Republicans were allowed to gerrymander their House maps in more big states this year, while Democrats were blocked from doing so in some key spots. And while votes are still being counted, if Republicans do indeed hang on to take House control, they have gerrymandering to thank.
The House has to redraw its lines every decade to account for population shifts, and that redistricting process has long been dominated by partisans of both sides gerrymandering seats to benefit their party. But that process has gotten much more precise and accurate in recent decades because of computer technology. Republicans had a huge 2010 election they used to lock in gerrymandered maps. That gave them unified control of more states than Democrats a full decade later—which they used to draw even more gerrymandered maps to protect their political power.
Democrats do the same thing when and where they can, but have far fewer opportunities to do so. And that lopsided dynamic may have just handed Republicans House control.
David Wasserman, the House race editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said that Republicans’ net redistricting wins likely swung the House—but that it came down more to where Democrats weren’t allowed to gerrymander than where Republicans got to draw the lines to benefit their party.
“It’s more the lack of Democrats' ability to counter Republicans’ ability to gerrymander, between nonpartisan commissions in California, Washington, New Jersey, and the New York and Maryland courts striking down their maps,” Wasserman told VICE News.
The biggest pieces of this were Florida and New York. In Florida, Republicans drew a hyper-aggressive gerrymander that gave them enough seats that it may have flipped the House this election. On the other hand, New York Democrats’ gerrymander was blocked—and they lost most of the competitive seats on a neutral map, costing them House control.
In Florida, Republicans originally drew a map that was GOP-friendly but aimed to avoid a court fight since the state has an anti-gerrymandering law on the books. That map likely would have resulted in 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats heading to Congress, with one competitive seat. But that wasn’t good enough for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who forced them to draw a new map that broke up a Black-majority district and packed Democratic voters into fewer districts. The result: On Tuesday, Republicans won 20 of the state’s 28 House seats. That’s a four-seat swing toward the GOP—which all by itself might be the difference that gives Republicans House control in the next Congress.
As much as they might like to pretend otherwise, it’s not like Democrats have their hands clean on gerrymandering. In fact, their inability to gerrymander in states where they have majority control is a big reason why they won’t have the House.
New York Democrats tried to pull the same thing that Florida Republicans did, scrapping the current House map that had been the product of a bipartisan compromise in favor of an aggressive gerrymander that would have given them 22 of the state’s 26 congressional seats and ignoring a new state law aimed at ending gerrymandering. But unlike in Florida, New York’s Supreme Court actually upheld the law and struck down their map in favor of a fair map.
The state’s unusually close governor’s race boosted Republicans, and they won or currently lead in 11 of the state’s 26 House races. That’s a net of seven seats for Republicans compared to what the Democratic gerrymander would have yielded (and three more than they currently hold)—enough all by itself to give Republicans the House if no other House seats exchanged hands.
One of the few Republicans who defeated a Democratic House incumbent pointed to Democrats’ failure to gerrymander his state as the reason he won.
“The redistricting process certainly played a big role. I think Democrats got very greedy in trying to gerrymander New York’s maps, and when the courts threw them out and drew a fair map, it really gave us an opportunity to swing the suburbs back to Republican,” Mike Lawler, who defeated Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney in a suburban New York City seat on Tuesday, said on CNN.
This happened elsewhere too: Ohio Republicans got to put their gerrymander in place for this election, giving them a map where they won 10 of the state’s 15 House seats, one more than they would have under a fair map. And that number would have been much higher if Democrats hadn’t pulled off a surprising sweep of the state’s three competitive House races.
Iowa legislative Republicans rejected the first map drawn by their state’s nonpartisan redistricting commission, one that would have given Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne a slightly safer district and put Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson in grave danger; the second map they did accept made both districts slightly more Republican than they’d been previously. Axne narrowly lost on Tuesday, while Hinson cruised to reelection. The old map could have yielded each party two House seats; instead, Republicans swept all four.
Republicans gerrymandered Georgia to give them nine of the state’s 14 House seats, one more than their old gerrymander and a lopsided number in a swing state. Texas Republicans went even further, shoring up more than a half-dozen GOP incumbents whose districts were becoming increasingly Democratic and competitive while weakening a handful of Democratic seats. The result: Republicans won 25 of the state’s 38 seats, and barely lost a race.
And GOP gerrymanders in Louisiana and Alabama were allowed by the courts even though they minimized Black voters’ power, costing Democrats a House seat in each state.
Where Republicans were largely allowed to gerrymander to their hearts’ desire, Democrats were stymied in some key spots—and not just in New York.
Maryland Democrats had drawn a gerrymandered map that could have given them all eight of the state’s House seats. But a state judge struck down that map and forced them to adopt a fairer map with one safe Republican seat and another competitive one. Democratic Rep. David Trone currently trails his Republican opponent in that race.
That means the only major Democratic gerrymander that survived was in Illinois, where it appears Democrats have won 14 of the state’s 17 House seats.
And good-government initiatives that bar partisan gerrymandering in states like California, Colorado, New Jersey, and Washington prevented Democrats from drawing themselves more seats in those states.
New Jersey’s bipartisan commission meant Democrats had to work with Republicans to draw a map, for instance. They settled on a bipartisan gerrymander compromise that screwed Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski but shored up the rest of the state’s vulnerable Democrats. Malinowski went on to narrowly lose reelection this week. If Democrats had been able to gerrymander the state by themselves, they likely could have protected him too.
It could have been far worse for Democrats. Court-drawn maps in Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania gave them fair playing fields, and they swept almost all of the competitive House seats in those two states, giving them a real chance at hanging onto the House. The reason Democrats were able to win back House control in the first place in 2018 was because courts struck down GOP gerrymanders in places like Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. But there’s future danger: North Carolina Republicans just won control of their state supreme court, meaning they’ll likely re-gerrymander the map before 2024 and give themselves another half-dozen seats.
The results of the 2022 election surprised pundits and political strategists of both parties and gave Democrats wins in a number of close races where they thought they were underdogs. But the results of the gerrymandering process were depressingly predictable—and helped Republicans consolidate power even as the midterms were fought to a draw.