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Rust Belt redistricting could bolster GOP majority in 2012

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.washingtonindependent.com/critz-416x282.jpgMark Critz's (D-Pa.) district is at risk of being eliminated following a strong Republican showing in Tuesday's midterm elections. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/ZUMApress.com)

Freshman Rep. Mark Critz (D) managed to survive Tuesday’s Republican onslaught in Pennsylvania, a tidal wave that swept out five of his Democratic colleagues from the state’s House delegation, flipped a U.S. Senate seat and handed full control of the state government to the GOP. Critz, who took the seat in a May special election, will get a full term in office — but it may be his only one. His district in the rural area south of Pittsburgh is at risk of being eliminated, a victim of redistricting. Rust Belt states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, are some of the most likely ones to lose seats in this round of redistricting — and Republicans’ strong showing Tuesday in the region could allow them to use those losses to their advantage.

[Congress1] While the GOP’s 60-plus-seat gain in the House of Representatives has grabbed the biggest post-election headlines, the major gains the party made in state governments — increasing the number of states fully under its control from eight to at least 19 — puts it in its strongest position for redistricting in decades.

The GOP takeover of state governments in Pennsylvania and Ohio may be especially important because those two states, along with New York, each gave the party five of its House pickups, more than any other states this year.

Critz came the closest to defeat among Pennsylvania’s seven surviving House Democrats, edging out Republican challenger Tim Burns by less than two percentage points. Though no one knows for sure which of the Democratic districts in Pennsylvania will be on the chopping block, his seat may be the likeliest candidate.

“It appears, just from conversations with people in the capitol, that it will be the Critz seat,” said pollster G. Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs. “He’s junior. It’s in the area where population losses are the greatest in our state, in the southwest. It’s been assumed that he will be in the bull’s-eye. But it could be [Rep.] Tim Holden (D). He’s in a district that if they can figure out how to carve it up, they might not pick up a seat but they can strengthen their suburban seats.”

The Republicans’ resurgence in Ohio has left the state with just five Democrats in the House delegation. Given that the state government is again under Republican control, it is likely that the number of Democratic seats may go down even further after redistricting.

“Ohio will lose a House seat or two because of the census, and it is highly likely that whatever Ohio loses will come from the Democratic side,” said Justin Buchler, a political science professor at Case Western Reserve University.

A two-seat Democratic loss in Ohio would mean 13 Republican seats in the House delegation to just three Democratic ones. Democratic areas around Cleveland, Toledo and Youngstown have seen the largest population losses in the state, but Buchler said Republicans will need to protect their own incumbents rather than try to make any further House gains in the state.

“In order for Republicans to pick up seats through a partisan gerrymander, they would need to pack Democratic voters even more efficiently into a smaller number of districts, while giving themselves more narrow majorities in several other districts,” he said. “The risk of that is that a small shift towards the Democrats would cause the Republicans to lose the narrow Republican majority districts.”

Pennsylvania Republicans will not be thinking much about expanding beyond the House seats they will hold at the start of the next Congress either, Madonna said.

“They can’t just play offense; they have to play defense,” he said. “They’ve got one seat in a heavily Democratic area and they’ve got two in the politically volatile suburbs.”

“They’re playing a little bit of roulette with themselves if they try to pick up a seat,” Madonna added. “Remember, the state has 1.1 million more Democrats than Republicans. They run the risk, if they get too expansionistic, of weakening their hold on their own seats.”

Jimm Phillips is a former intern for The Washington Independent.

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