Maryland Democrats eye delicate redistricting balance

Maryland Democrats will likely set their sights on the state’s two Republican congressional districts during redistricting this year, but they could have trouble improving upon the favorable map they built a decade ago.

An advisory committee appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, Democrat, will meet Wednesday to begin the decennial process, in which the governor and state legislators remap Maryland’s eight congressional and 47 state legislative districts.

Majority Democrats are expected to push for a map that has more Democratic or fewer Republican voters in the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland districts held by GOP congressmen.

However, analysts say the majority party might be best served not to tinker with an existing map that has helped it seize a firm hold of six of eight congressional seats.

“The last round of redistricting pretty effectively limited Republicans to two districts,” said Todd Eberly, the coordinator of public-policy studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “I think the smart thing they can do is just coast with what they’ve got.”

Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican, was elected last year to the 1st Congressional District seat on the Eastern Shore, and GOP Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, has held the District 6 seat in Western Maryland for 10 terms. Mr. Bartlett, 85, announced Tuesday he will seek another term in 2012.

The last redistricting in 2001 paid immediate dividends for Democrats, who were able to gain two congressional seats in the 2002 election. The result gave them the 6-to-2 advantage after 10 years of being deadlocked with Republicans at four seats apiece.

That year, redistricting in Montgomery County helped current 8th District Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, oust eight-term incumbent Republican Connie Morella. Then-2nd District Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, left office that year to mount a successful run for governor, opening his seat to Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat.

This year’s redistricting might not yield as immediate turnover, as Mr. Harris and Mr. Bartlett notched comfortable victories last year. However, it could set up fierce battles over the next decade, especially whenever Mr. Bartlett chooses to leave office.

Officials have promised a transparent process — including Mr. O’Malley, who said the new districts should “accurately reflect the diversity of the state.”

However, Mr. Eberly said redistricting is understood in most states to be a partisan process.

He said Democrats could have success packing party voters into the most competitive state legislative districts, but that any serious effort to challenge for more congressional seats could compromise the six districts where they’ve built decided majorities.

“You can try to take Republicans and break them up and spread them out as much as you can,” he said. “But when you’ve got a Democratic incumbent, they don’t want their district to change.”

The five-member redistricting advisory committee will conduct public hearings this summer before recommending a new congressional map to Mr. O’Malley, who will then issue his proposal to the General Assembly.

The assembly will consider the proposal and adopt a final map during its special session beginning Oct. 17. It will tackle state legislative districts during its regular session in January.

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