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Illinois Democrats agonize over how much to gerrymander

Illinois Democrats unveiled a draft congressional map Friday that would bury the GOP: The proposed lines could give them control of 14 of the state’s 17 House seats.

But privately, some national Democrats felt even that didn’t go far enough. So late Friday night, they floated an alternative map that was even more aggressive — one that could leave Republicans with just two seats.

The dueling maps provided rare insight into the partisan considerations and infighting that mark Illinois’ effort to redraw its congressional districts, as national Democrats try desperately to cling to their five-seat majority by pressing their advantage in one of the few places where the party has total control over redistricting.

The official proposal Friday from Springfield Democrats — which splits Chicagoland into a 10-slice pizza and creates one district that looks like a serpent slithering from Missouri to Indiana and another that swerves from downstate Illinois up to the Wisconsin border — complicates the reelections of GOP Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Rodney Davis. But it doesn’t doom either congressman entirely. And while the plan somewhat shores up Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood and the seat vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos, neither district would be insulated if the party faces strong headwinds in the next election.

Democratic Rep. Marie Newman, on the other hand, finds herself in a potentially competitive seat — and she was quick to express her displeasure.

“It is abundantly apparent that what has currently been proposed for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District is not only retrogressive but substantially diminishes the diverse and progressive voices of Chicago’s Southwest Side and suburbs,” Newman said in a statement.

If 2022 is a strong midterm for Republicans, they could possibly control as many as a half-dozen seats under the map floated by in-state Democrats. And privately some national operatives were baffled why Democrats, who control the Illinois governorship and both chambers of the state Legislature, had produced a map they see as flimsy.

“The map that was released is a massive missed opportunity that will have repercussions for control of the House,” said one Democratic strategist involved in Illinois politics. “And I can’t imagine that Democrats in Illinois, who have a reputation for being incredibly well-organized, disciplined and ruthless, would allow this to happen.”

The initial proposal dissolved Kinzinger’s district in exurban Chicago to give some of his Democratic-friendly voters to Underwood, Bustos and others — but placed his home in Newman’s new, somewhat-swingy district. The open seat currently held by Bustos would become more Democratic by taking in more of Rockford and Peoria and the city of Bloomington, but could still flip to the GOP in a good Republican year.

It also unites East St. Louis, Springfield, Decatur and Champaign in a string bean-esque seat downstate, a move that would make it very difficult for Davis to win reelection, though not impossible.

The official proposal creates some interesting bedfellows. Newman and Kinzinger would share a district that starts in the outskirts of Chicago and ends in the middle of the state. (Former Rep. Dan Lipinski has even hinted that he may seek a rematch with Newman in the Democratic primary if the lines remain the same.)

GOP Reps. Darin LaHood and Mary Miller both live in the proposed new 16th District — though much of Miller’s old seat remains in the new 15th District, as is Davis’ home of Taylorville.

In a statement releasing the map, Democrats hailed them as a strong initial attempt that could change after the public weighs in during hearings this week.

“This proposal is an excellent first draft that amplifies diverse voices and gives every person in our state a say in government,” said Democratic state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, chair of the statehouse’s redistricting committee.

State Republicans were quick to pan the proposal as a shameless gerrymander.

“Call this new Illinois map the Nancy Pelosi Protection Plan,” said state GOP Chairman Don Tracy. “It’s appalling that fair representation, keeping communities of interest together and transparency in the mapmaking process in Illinois all had to take a back seat to the demands of national politics.”

Yet if Republicans found that map absurd, they will be even more offended by a new proposal.

Crafted by Zach Koutsky, a longtime Illinois Democratic operative, it appeared on the state Legislature’s online portal late Friday night.

The more aggressive map is even more contorted than the first — though perhaps more effective at delivering seats for Democrats. It was crafted in consultation with national Democrats, according to a source familiar with its origin.

In this proposal, Bustos’ northwest Illinois district stretches across the state’s northern border, grabbing the city of Rockford and dipping into Lake County to pick up some of the city of Waukegan. It also loops the Democratic-leaning cities downstate into two districts: one snaking from East St. Louis to Springfield to Decatur, and another that stretches from Peoria to Bloomington to Champaign.

That would leave just two deep-red seats for the state’s current Republican members. Democrats could conceivably take 15 of the 17 districts in the next election under this map.

State lawmakers are expected to vote on a congressional map during the tail end of a veto session that starts Tuesday and wraps up on Oct. 28. Lawmakers have said they will take into consideration comments from public hearings and map proposals, like Koutsky’s, that are submitted electronically through the portal. But the decision-making will be done behind closed doors before the legislative vote.

“I’ve worked with Democrats across the state to bring this together,” Koutsky said in an interview with POLITICO. He declined to specify which Democratic groups were involved but said he hoped it would be seriously considered by the state Legislature.

“The submission that I offered presents more competitive seats than examples that I had seen previously.”

Shia Kapos reported from Chicago.

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