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The redistricting cycle is about to begin

The most chaotic year in congressional politics is about to begin.

The U.S. Census Bureau will release the first data from the 2020 census next week, setting in motion the process of redistricting: the scramble to draw new congressional maps in the 43 states with more than one district. And with the House more closely divided than it’s been in two decades, each individual state’s new map could have huge implications on the majority fight.

Strategists in both parties agree Republicans have the advantage. The Midwest and Rust Belt aren’t growing as fast as the Sun Belt, and the congressional districts will be reallocated accordingly. States like Florida, Texas, Arizona and North Carolina will see their delegations grow, while Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois shrink. That’s a net benefit to the GOP because Democrats have struggled to increase their statewide footprint in many of the places that are gaining representation.

This reapportionment data normally arrives in late December at the end of every decade, but the pandemic and the Trump administration’s attempt to block undocumented immigrants from being counted in the census have mired the process in delays. Even this data will only give the topline numbers: the number of districts each state will receive and how many people will reside in each district. The more detailed data needed to actually craft maps won’t come until later this fall.

Congressional operatives have a rough picture of how the seats will be divided thanks to projections from other sources, but outstanding questions about the 2020 census have made redistricting more uncertain than usual at this point. Here’s what this data will answer:

The battle for the 435th seat

Applying a formula to the total population counts in the decennial tally, the Census Bureau will award congressional districts to each state from one to 435. The latest estimates, from July 2020, suggest a showdown between a handful of states for the final seat, with the most likely head-to-head matchup coming down to New York against Alabama.

New York is almost certainly losing one seat, but if it edges out Alabama for the final allocated district, it could avoid losing a second. If Alabama gets it, its delegation will hold steady at seven seats.

If Alabama is the loser, the state’s Republican delegation will shrink because the only Democratic district, held by Rep. Terri Sewell, is protected by the Voting Rights Act. Because GOP Rep. Mo Brooks has already announced he will vacate his northern Alabama seat for a Senate run, the GOP legislature in Montgomery could protect every remaining incumbent. But it could also loop together freshmen Reps. Barry Moore and Jerry Carl in the southern half of the state, setting up a primary battle between two new members.

Dropping from 27 seats to 25 seats would be a nightmare scenario for New York. Republicans have the most to fear, because Democrats mostly control the process. The delegation has eight Republicans; One, Rep. Tom Reed, is retiring, while another two, Reps. Lee Zeldin and Elise Stefanik, could run for governor; Zeldin has already declared. Democrats, meanwhile, have a long 2022 wish list: shoring up Democratic Reps. Antonio Delgado and Sean Patrick Maloney, and reclaiming seats held by Republican Reps. John Katko and Claudia Tenney.

The other states that could be lucky enough to snag the 435th and final House seat: Florida and Texas — which could gain two and three seats, respectively — and two Midwest states that are set to each lose a seat unless the numbers break their way: Minnesota and Ohio.

Will California lose a seat for the first time?

California is more likely than not losing a district, a product of its slowed population growth in recent years. The state failed to gain a seat for the first time after the 2010 census, when it held steady at 53 seats. Now it’s probably dipping to 52.

It’s a stunning turnaround from just a few decades ago. After the 1990 census, California gained a whopping seven seats. But it gained only one in 2000, then was unchanged in 2010.

The commission that will carve up the state’s congressional map is nonpartisan. But Republicans only hold 11 of the districts, so it’s hard to imagine them taking too much of a hit. Democrats in the Los Angeles area may experience a particular crunch. The delegation is likely already bracing for some uncomfortable member-versus-member showdowns, echoing two big battles between sitting Democratic members of Congress a decade ago: Rep. Brad Sherman ousted then-Rep. Howard Berman, and then-Rep. Janice Hahn knocked out her colleague, Laura Richardson.

How many Rust Belt states will shrink?

The Midwest is losing congressional clout, but there’s still uncertainty over just how much. Ohio and Minnesota are bracing for losses which would drop them down to 15 districts and seven districts, respectively. But there’s a chance that both hold steady — a pleasant surprise for both delegations.

Meanwhile, Illinois is almost certainly losing one of its 18 districts — and there’s a possibility it drops a second. That would be tough on Democrats, who want to protect Democratic Reps. Lauren Underwood and Cheri Bustos in the north and target GOP Rep. Rodney Davis downstate.

There’s less uncertainty around Michigan and Pennsylvania. Their populations have grown so slowly there are almost guaranteed to shed one district each.

Will Texas and Florida gain multiple seats?

The most recent Census data suggests both of these Sun Belt states are poised to gain big. Florida could swell from 27 seats to 29 seats, and Texas could move from 36 seats to 39 seats. But Florida’s second seat and Texas’s third are not guaranteed.

Any change in delegation size in these states benefits the GOP, which has total control over the map-drawing process in both and will be trying to maximize their advantage. Nationally, Republicans only need five seats to take back the House. They could get that through these new additions alone, if both states win big next week. Texas is growing so quickly there’s a chance one of their new seats might be competitive for Democrats, but most expect Florida’s new districts to heavily favor the GOP.

Will Montana gain a seat?

Montana dropped down to a single at-large district after the 1990 census, but now it’s well positioned for a comeback. The latest estimates indicate Montana will get a second seat.

Democrats have won statewide in other offices in Montana, but they haven’t held its House seat since Democratic Rep. Pat Williams retired in 1992. Still, a commission will draw the maps in Montana, diminishing the power of the Republican governor and legislature. A map that slices the state in half could create a competitive seat in the western half of the state.

But Montana’s gain is Rhode Island’s loss. The former eked ahead of the latter in population in mid-decade estimates, meaning Rhode Island is more likely than not losing its second seat when the final numbers are released. Democratic Reps. David Cicilline and Jim Langevin will have to decide if they have the stomach for a head-to-head showdown.

What would 2020 election look like under new maps?

The reapportionment will also tweak the makeup of the Electoral College, giving additional power to the states that are growing more quickly. Rerunning the 2020 presidential election according to census projections of the new Electoral College, now-President Joe Biden’s electoral vote total would slip slightly, from 306 to 301. Former President Donald Trump, by virtue of the growth in states he won, like Texas and Florida, would earn 237 electoral votes, compared to the 232 he received.

But the new numbers being released next week won’t signal a huge shift in the Electoral College battleground. States that had a presidential margin of within 10 points in 2020 would have 206 total electoral college votes under the new estimate, compared to the 203 votes they actually cast in 2020.

Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.

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