WASHINGTON — A year before the polls open in the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans are already poised to flip at least five seats in the closely divided House thanks to redrawn district maps that are more distorted, more disjointed and more gerrymandered than any since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
The rapidly forming congressional map, a quarter of which has taken shape as districts are redrawn this year, represents an even more extreme warping of American political architecture, with state legislators in many places moving aggressively to cement their partisan dominance.
The flood of gerrymandering, carried out by both parties but predominantly by Republicans, is likely to leave the country ever more divided by further eroding competitive elections and making representatives more beholden to their party’s base.
At the same time, Republicans’ upper hand in the redistricting process, combined with plunging approval ratings for President Biden and the Democratic Party, provides the party with what could be a nearly insurmountable advantage in the 2022 midterm elections and the next decade of House races.
“The floor for Republicans has been raised,” Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the chairman of House Republicans’ campaign committee, said in an interview. “Our incumbents actually are getting stronger districts.”
Congressional maps serve, perhaps more than ever before, as a predictor of which party will control the House of Representatives, where Democrats now hold 221 seats to Republicans’ 213. In the 12 states that have completed the mapping process, Republicans have gained an advantage for seats in Iowa, North Carolina, Texas and Montana, and Democrats have lost the advantage in districts in North Carolina and Iowa.
All told, Republicans have added a net of five seats that the party can expect to hold while Democrats are down one. Republicans need to flip just five Democratic-held seats next year to seize a House majority.
“They’re really taking a whack at competition,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The path back to a majority for Democrats if they lose in 2022 has to run through states like Texas, and they’re just taking that off the table.”
Competition in House races has decreased for years. In 2020, The New York Times considered just 61 of the 435 House elections to be “battleground” contests. The trend is starkest in places like Texas, where 14 congressional districts in 2020 had a presidential vote that was separated by 10 percentage points or less. With the state’s new maps, only three are projected to be decided by a similar margin.
In most states, the map drawing is controlled by state legislators, who often resort to far-reaching gerrymanders. Republicans have control over the redistricting process in states that represent 187 congressional seats, compared with just 84 for Democrats. The rest are to be drawn by outside panels or are in states where the two parties must agree on maps or have them decided by the courts.
Gerrymandering is carried out in many ways, but the two most common forms are “cracking” and “packing.” Cracking is when mapmakers spread a cluster of a certain type of voters — for example, those affiliated with the opposing party — among several districts to dilute their vote. Packing is when members of a demographic group, like Black voters, or voters in the opposing political party, are crammed into as few districts as possible.
The Republican gains this year build on what was already a significant cartographic advantage. The existing maps were heavily gerrymandered by statehouse Republicans after the G.O.P.’s wave election in 2010, in a rapid escalation of the congressional map-drawing wars. This year, both parties are starting from a highly contorted map amid a zero-sum political environment. With advancements in both voter data and software, they have been able to take a more surgical approach to the process.
Republicans are cautious about doing a premature victory lap in case the country’s political mood shifts again over the next year. Democrats believe that while keeping their House majority will be an uphill battle, they have a stronger chance of maintaining control in the Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris currently breaks a 50-50 tie.
Republicans also argue that there could in fact be many newly competitive House districts if Mr. Biden’s approval ratings remain in the doldrums and voters replicate the G.O.P.’s successes in elections this month.
Democrats, without much to brag about, accuse Republicans of being afraid of competitive elections.
“Fear is driving all of this,” David Pepper, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman, said on Wednesday at a hearing to discuss a proposed map that would give Republicans 13 of the state’s 15 congressional seats. “Fear of what would happen if we actually had a real democracy.”
More districts are certain to shift from Democratic to Republican in the coming weeks. Republican lawmakers in Georgia and Florida will soon begin debating new maps.
Several other states have completed maps for the 2020s that entrench existing Republican advantages. Republicans in Alabama and Indiana shored up G.O.P.-held congressional districts while packing their state’s pockets of Democrats into uncompetitive enclaves. In Utah, a new map eliminates a competitive district in Salt Lake City that Democrats won in 2018. Republicans have made an Oklahoma City seat much safer, while Colorado’s independent redistricting commission shored up the district of Representative Lauren Boebert, a Republican and Trump ally, so much that her leading Democratic opponent, who had raised $1.9 million, dropped out of the contest to defeat her.
And in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a map that protects the state’s 23 Republican incumbents while adding two safely red seats, a year after the party spent $22 million to protect vulnerable House members.
“The competitive Republican seats are off the board,” said Adam Kincaid, the executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the party’s clearinghouse for designing new maps.
In one of the few states where Democrats are on offense, Illinois will eliminate two Republican seats from its delegation and add one Democratic one when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the map that the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature approved last month. New York is likely to add seats to the Democratic column once the party’s lawmakers complete maps next year, and Maryland Democrats may draw their state’s lone Republican congressman out of a district.
Democrats in Nebraska also managed to preserve a competitive district that includes Omaha after initial Republican proposals sought to split the city in two.
Calling the Republican moves an “unprecedented power grab,” Kelly Burton, the president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said that the G.O.P. was “not successfully taking over the battleground” but instead “proactively and intentionally trying to remove competitive seats.”
Several other states where Republicans drew advantageous districts for themselves a decade ago will now have outside commissions or courts determining their maps.
Understand How U.S. Redistricting Works
What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population.
How does it work? The census dictates how many seats in Congress each state will get. Mapmakers then work to ensure that a state’s districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House.
Who draws the new maps? Each state has its own process. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. But most — 39 states — have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress.
If state legislators can draw their own districts, won’t they be biased? Yes. Partisan mapmakers often move district lines — subtly or egregiously — to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal. This is called gerrymandering.
Is gerrymandering legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.
Wisconsin Republicans on Thursday passed a congressional map that would shift a Democratic seat to certain Republican control, though Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, promised to veto it. Michigan and Virginia, which had gerrymandered districts, have adopted outside commissions to draw new lines. Pennsylvania has a Democratic governor certain to veto Republican maps.
And it’s not clear what California’s independent commission will do when it completes the state’s process later this year.
Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, the chairman of House Democrats’ campaign arm, said the party still had a path to hold its majority.
“We’ve got a battlefield that we can win on; I think we are very much in the fight,” he said in an interview. “No one is declaring victory just yet.”
Still, Republicans have far more opportunities to press their advantage. G.O.P. lawmakers in New Hampshire proposed changing a congressional map largely unaltered since the 1800s to create a Republican seat. In Georgia, Republicans are set to place Representatives Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux, Democrats who hold seats in Atlanta’s booming northern suburbs, into a single Democratic district while forming a new Republican seat.
Officials in both parties are preparing for years of legal fights over the maps, with the potential for courts to order the redrawing of maps well into the decade. Lawsuits have already been filed over maps in Oregon, Alabama, North Carolina and Texas.
But the legal landscape has shifted since the last redistricting cycle: The Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that federal courts were not the venue to bring lawsuits regarding partisan gerrymandering. (Lawsuits claiming racial gerrymandering under the Voting Rights Act are still an option.)
“This is always in every decade a very accelerated process in the courts, but it is even more so this year because of the four months that were lost because of the delayed release,” said Thomas A. Saenz, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a group involved in multiple redistricting lawsuits. “The question is, will the courts run out of time and allow even maps that are legally flawed to be used for one election cycle in 2022?”
Among the states with completed maps, nowhere more than North Carolina represents the vigorous Republican effort to tilt the scales of redistricting in the party’s favor.
Republicans who control the Legislature in North Carolina, the only state forced by courts to completely redraw its congressional maps twice since 2011 for obvious partisan gerrymandering, this month approved highly gerrymandered districts that essentially revert the state to a map similar to the ones thrown out by the courts.
The map Republicans passed gives the G.O.P. an advantage in 10 of the state’s 14 congressional districts, despite a near 50-50 split in the statewide popular vote for president in 2020. Former President Donald J. Trump carried the state by 1.3 percentage points. (The current congressional breakdown is eight Republicans and five Democrats, the result of a court-ordered redrawing of the map for the 2020 election.)
The map packs Democrats into three heavily blue districts around Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte, as well as one competitive district in the northeast with a significant Black voting population that would put a Black congressman, G.K. Butterfield, in danger of losing his seat.
Republicans in the state argued that their redistricting process had been “race blind” because they drew maps without looking at demographic data. But the result, critics say, was even worse.
“To pretend to be race-neutral and then draw these districts that are so harmful to Black voters flies in the face of why we even have federal law,” said Allison Riggs, an executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is suing the state. “The process is so broken.”