The 2012 congressional elections are more than 10 months away, but some key votes already have been cast — and not by the electorate.
Judges, rather, are playing major roles in reshaping the House landscape this election cycle, as the courts in many states have ruled — or soon will — on disputed redistricting maps in several battleground states.
Democrats have won early-round court battles in Texas and California regarding congressional redistricting — a process conducted every 10 years based on census data that reflect changes in population. With more cases pending or expected in those and other key states such as Florida and New York, the party is in a good position to chip away at the Republicans’ 50-seat advantage in the House.
Political analysts say Republicans still aren’t in danger of losing control of the House, which they wrested from Democrats with the 2010 elections.
“Even though we’re still in the redistricting process, it looks like Democrats will gain House seats — just not the 25 they need in order to win the majority,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.
Polling in recent weeks has varied, predicating just how difficult it is for pollsters to gauge the 2012 House elections amid the redistricting debates. A Rasmussen Reports survey released Dec. 12 shows Republicans with a 3-percentage-point advantage over Democrats on a generic congressional ballot, but an Ipsos Poll conducted for Reuters news agency at almost the same time shows Democrats with a 6-point lead.
“It’s too early [to accurately predict], particularly with Florida still outstanding,” Mr. Gonzales said. “We like to know who is running and where they are running, and right now in 16 states we still aren’t really sure what those factors are.”
One of the biggest enigmas is Florida, where a new voter-approved “fair districts” amendment to the state constitution is being used to redraw congressional boundaries. The anti-gerrymandering measure bars lawmakers from drawing districts to favor incumbents or a political party.
The Florida Senate, after months of hearings statewide, last month released a proposed congressional map, which fair districts proponents said didn’t go far enough to eradicate irregularly shaped districts. The final map — which is almost certain to generate legal challenges — is expected early next year.
The Florida House and two members of Congress — Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican, and Corrine Brown, a Democrat — have sued to overturn the measure, saying it violates the U.S. Constitution’s provision that state legislatures — not voters through a referendum — have control over redistricting.
A federal judge in Miami upheld the amendment in September, but an appeal is pending.
“Adhering to all of the elements of the fair districts maps simultaneously and equally is not possible, because obviously the federal Voting Rights Act trumps the state law,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “That said, it does look like at least there’s been some movement toward the ideals of the fair districting components, specifically [toward] more competitive districts.”
In Texas, the March primary likely will be delayed because the Supreme Court this month blocked the use of congressional district maps drawn by federal judges. The maps would have favored Democrats by ensuring that minorities made up the majority in three new districts.
The judges issued the maps after a lawsuit was filed over a redistricting plan drawn by the GOP-led Legislature. Minority groups sued, claiming the maps didn’t reflect the growth in the state’s Hispanic and black populations.
Complicating matters in Texas is a federal judge’s refusal to approve the Legislature’s map without a trial, agreeing with the Justice Department that there was sufficient evidence to question whether the Republican plan hurt minority representation.
New York’s redistricting process — typically among the most contentious and complicated in the nation — is expected to continue well into 2012, with legal challenges almost certain once a map is finished. Because state law doesn’t impose a particular deadline for drawing congressional lines, the process often slogs on longer than in most other states.
New York’s redistricting process is all the more challenging because the state has lost two congressional districts as a result of nationwide population shifts. With each party controlling one legislative chamber, many political analysts predict an eventual compromise will target for elimination one Democrat-leaning district in the New York City area and one traditionally Republican seat upstate.
In California, a new citizens commission produced a vastly different congressional map from what state lawmakers drew up in 2001 for the previous round of redistricting, which essentially preserved nearly every incumbent district and deleted just one Republican district.
The lines have been challenged in court. Some Republicans say they have been targeted by the new map and that Democrats could net five or more seats out of the process, though some political analysts doubt a Democratic gain that large.
The California Supreme Court in October rejected lawsuits challenging the congressional map, but litigation is pending in federal court.
In Ohio, a potential Democrat-backed legal challenge to the state’s new congressional map — drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature — fizzled after challengers failed last week to get the 230,000 signatures needed to put the issue on a referendum in November.
Although Democrats largely were blamed for the country’s fiscal woes in 2010 and the party lost control of the House amid a tea party-infused GOP wave, voter anger will be more evenly distributed next year between the two parties, some analysts say.
“There is maybe a growing concern that neither side has any credible solutions that resonate with people,” said Scott Rasmussen, founder and president of Rasmussen Reports.
“There is some discouragement setting in, some concerns about the future. But there is not the clear belief that, ‘Oh boy, if we just get these guys out and another team in that things will get better.’”
Still, House Democrats face specific re-election hurdles in 2012 and beyond.
Voter perception that the Democratic Party is an advocate of “big government,” whether fair or not, will continue to work against the party, Mr. Rasmussen said.
“Most voters believe that cutting spending and reducing deficits is good for the economy, and from that attitude is a challenge for Democrats and where I think it hurts them the most,” he said.
The Democratic Party also has had to contend with shifting demographics, most notably the defection of many white blue-collar voters to the Republican Party.
“It’s not just because of the president’s health care law, and it’s not just because of the temporary issues that occur from candidate to candidate,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “It has been a fundamental change in the perception of the Democratic Party and the perception of what works for the economy.”
The heavy concentration of these voters into geographical enclaves — particularly large urban areas and college towns — will make it more difficult for the party to recapture the House anytime soon, said David Wasserman, who covers House races for the Cook Political Report.
“The Democrats’ coalition today is the most geographically inefficient coalition for purposes of winning the House,” he said. “We had this era over the course of the ‘50s all the way through the ‘90s where we mostly had Republican presidents and a Democratic Congress. We may be entering a new era where the roles are kind of reversed.”
This geographical density for Democrats creates a scenario in which, if all the ballots cast in House races nationally were added together and the Democratic Party won the popular vote, they still could lose the House by two dozen seats, Mr. Wasserman said.
“To the extent that Democrats have a wave election year and are able to win the generic ballot by 5 or more [percentage] points, they have a shot at winning the House,” he said. “But in neutral environment or in a pro-Republican environment, it is Republicans who are going to win the House.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.