It’s hard to remember a time when anyone beyond the borders of New York state cared about how the state’s congressional districts were redrawn. Bleeding population and House seats every decade, New York had long been something of an afterthought, ignored in heated debates over how states like Texas, Florida, and Ohio carve out their maps.
Next year is going to be very different. No state may matter more to the future of the Democratic House majority than safe blue New York—which nevertheless boasts a sizable Republican delegation. If local Democrats have their way in the coming months, the number of Republicans in the state might be radically reduced, bolstering House Democrats at a time when Republicans are expected to make gains during the midterm elections.
How many Democratic seats can New York add? Under some of the most ambitious scenarios, Democrats could control as many as 23 of New York’s 26 House seats. That would shrink the Republican delegation from eight to three, purging conservatives who have traditionally represented parts of New York City and the surrounding suburbs. In the House, Democrats have a cushion of only eight seats and are very unlikely to make gains, given the history of parties in power losing strength in the House and Senate. Erasing five Republicans in New York could make all the difference.
Local peculiarities have placed New York in this new national spotlight. Every 10 years, state legislators would huddle together to draw new legislative and congressional seats following the Census. Unlike a handful of other states, New York never had an independent redistricting process. The speaker of the state Assembly and Senate majority leader, with input from rank-and-file legislators and members of Congress, would sketch out new maps. The rule was simple: Protect incumbents at all costs.
In a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984, this should have produced greater Democratic gains in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. But New York was not like other Democrat-run states—Republicans not only held power but were permitted by Democratic politicians to keep it. From the 1960s until 2019, with one brief interruption, Republicans controlled the state Senate. This meant that every subsequent decade, without fail, featured a Republican senate majority leader drawing congressional maps in concert with Democrats who were more interested in protecting their own than in growing their ranks.
New York state’s redistricting a decade ago was a disaster. Andrew Cuomo had campaigned on a promise of creating an independent redistricting process free from the meddling of politicians. Such an independent commission would, by default, benefit Democrats who previously had to contend with gerrymandered state Senate seats and House maps. In 2012, Cuomo reneged on his promise, instead supporting a constitutional amendment that would create a politicized, quasi-independent body that would redraw the maps—in 2022. In the meantime, the Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans squabbled over how the district lines would take shape, with Democrats eventually crafting their own map for the lower chamber and Republicans getting, once more, badly gerrymandered state Senate districts in their favor.
What was left out was Congress. Since the two sides couldn’t agree, a federal judge drew new maps, basing the district lines on what had existed in the previous decade—a coup for Republicans, mostly, since the status quo was protected. Democrats in Washington grumbled, but they were wary of crossing Cuomo, a new governor who was then still quite popular after getting same-sex marriage passed in New York.
Now Cuomo is gone, felled in a sexual harassment scandal, and his successor, Kathy Hochul, is very interested in growing the Democratic majority. New York’s current redistricting process, thanks to a Cuomo-supported constitutional amendment that passed in the last decade, is strange: A blend of backroom deal-making and good-government reform that is no one’s ideal of how such a crucial element of democracy should function. A bipartisan commission that is purportedly independent has been tasked with drawing maps, but the state legislature can reject the panel’s proposal with a supermajority vote. Democrats now have supermajorities in both the Assembly and the state Senate.
What’s becoming increasingly clear is that local Democrats will spurn the commission’s maps and go it alone, crafting district lines to maximize their party’s strength—behaving, in other words, just like Republicans in the states they control. They are unlikely to encounter much public backlash: The commission is so deadlocked already that it has released Republican and Democratic versions of the new House maps. If the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader can hold their conferences together and round up the votes, the commission’s work won’t matter at all. This is the hope of powerful House Democrats in New York, including Hakeem Jeffries, a potential successor to Nancy Pelosi, and Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
There is plenty of irony here, of course, if Democrats in the state legislature do indeed draw their own congressional lines. In Washington, Chuck Schumer and many other Democrats are fighting bitterly to end gerrymandering altogether, understandably pointing to the number of states, like Michigan and Wisconsin, where Republicans have created state legislative majorities and favorable congressional maps through skewed maps. In New York, no Democrat, Schumer included, is going to denounce congressional maps that are engineered to aid Democrats and stamp out Republicans.
On one hand, this is a problem—gerrymandering as a principle should be opposed, always. But the Democratic position here is reasonable enough. A Republican-controlled House would entirely roadblock Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, as it did to Barack Obama’s. Passing bills through the reconciliation process would no longer be possible.
American politics is deeply polarized and zero-sum; if you aren’t winning—through gerrymandering or other means—you are absolutely losing. And New York, so irrelevant in presidential races and past redistricting fights, might be the key to Democratic survival next year.