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Thursday, December 1, 2022

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed congressional map

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a new map of congressional districts Saturday, the first proposal he’s released as he butts heads with Republicans over the decennial redistricting and intervention by the courts becomes increasingly likely.

Wolf released his map for the state’s 17 U.S. House districts while also touting the “citizens’ map” drawn through the Draw the Lines project of Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based good-government group. Without actually endorsing either, his office called them better than the one the Republican-controlled legislature is advancing.

“Throughout the congressional redistricting process, I have publicly outlined the requirements for a fair map that I would consider signing,” said Wolf, a Democrat. “While the House Republican map does not comply with those basic principles, I am highlighting two maps that do.”

Wolf’s map would create nine Democratic-leaning districts and eight Republican ones, according to Dave’s Redistricting, an online tool for analyzing maps. The site uses a composite of the last two presidential and U.S. Senate races, along with the 2018 election for governor and 2020 election for attorney general. Because Democrats did particularly well in some of those races, districts will appear slightly more Democratic-leaning than they likely are in practice.

The map, if enacted, would turn one Western Pennsylvania battleground now held by Democrats — but in Republicans’ reach — into a solidly Democratic district, by adding a portion of Pittsburgh. Competitive districts based in Bucks County, Chester County and the Lehigh Valley would remain so, and a Northeast Pennsylvania swing district would have not one but two incumbents, forcing a sitting Democrat and sitting Republican to face off.

Time is running out for a map to be enacted through the normal legislative process. Many observers have long suspected that Wolf and lawmakers would be unable to reach an agreement, and Republicans have criticized the governor for refusing to negotiate. As that process has appeared increasingly likely to fail, a lawsuit asking state courts to draw the map has heated up, with the Commonwealth Court this week fast-tracking the case.

Under that order, Wolf and the legislature have just over two weeks to agree on a map — or the court will impose one.

Saturday was the first time Wolf proposed his own specific ideas for how districts should be drawn this year. The governor previously released general principles he believes maps should follow, and opposed the map making its way through the legislature. But he hasn’t negotiated the actual drawing of the lines, frustrating Republicans.

Republicans repeated that criticism Saturday, accusing him of abdicating responsibility.

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), chair of the House State Government Committee, noted that Wolf had previously said he wouldn’t participate in the mapmaking.

“Now, on Jan. 15, he releases a take-it-or-leave-it map. We all know the correct process is legislature and governor negotiate,” Grove said, comparing the process to “trying to potty train my headstrong 3-year-old.”

» READ MORE: Democrats are suddenly fighting each other over Pennsylvania redistricting

Redistricting has become a potent political issue in recent years, drawing attention to what was once seen as a wonky topic.

States redraw their congressional maps every 10 years to reflect population changes measured in the census. How lines are drawn helps shape the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives and the influence and representation of local communities at the federal level for a decade. Pennsylvania is losing one of its 18 seats.

The high-stakes process will shape control of Congress next year, and for the following decade. Pennsylvania is home to about a half-dozen potentially competitive House districts, and the new map, by adding new voters to each district, will decide which ones become safer — or more treacherous — for each party.

Republicans, appearing to have the political winds at their backs, are targeting several Democratic-held districts as they push to take control of the House.

But one might be out of reach under Wolf’s plan.

He would split Pittsburgh into into two districts, creating two strongly Democratic seats, instead of one, as in the current alignment. Moving some of the city’s heavily Democratic voters into the suburban swing district held by U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb would turn that battleground into fairly safe Democratic territory, a significant victory for Wolf’s party, especially since Lamb is running for Senate, leaving Democrats without a tested incumbent there.

In Northeast Pennsylvania, which is expected to host one of the toughest House races in the country, the map would put together Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright and Republican Rep. Dan Meuser. Cartwright, whose districts already leans rightward, is a top Republican target and would face the prospect of running against an established GOP member of Congress. But his district would remain in reach for both parties, and Cartwright might still have an advantage, since most of the newly configured district would be territory he already represents, meaning the voters there know him. Meuser would have to introduce himself to much of the district. They both live in Luzerne County, which is divided under the existing lines.

One significant shift — moving Harrisburg to a new district — would make one Republican much safer, and give another one a tougher district. The capital city would leave Rep. Scott Perry’s district, making it hard for Democrats to beat him after taking aim at him in several recent elections. It would become part of Rep. Lloyd Smucker’s district, suddenly making his Lancaster County-based district much more closely balanced, if still leaning right.

Bucks County Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, Chester County Democrat Chrissy Houlahan, and Lehigh County Democrat Susan Wild would all remain in competitive territory. Each are top targets for the opposing party.

» READ MORE: What to watch as Pennsylvania loses a congressional seat: ‘The stakes are really high’

Redistricting after the last census helped cement GOP control of competitive suburban seats for nearly a decade.

That Republican-drawn map in 2011 so favored the GOP that, in election after election, the same 13 districts picked Republicans and the same five districts elected Democrats, even in a state that was close to evenly split overall. That happened even as the state voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016, and sent Bob Casey, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, to the U.S. Senate.

The state Supreme Court overturned that map in 2018, saying it was skewed so strongly for Republicans that it violated the state constitution’s guarantee that “elections shall be free and equal.”

» READ MORE: What new census data tell us about Pennsylvania politics

This time, as the clock ticks for a map to be finalized in time for the May 17 primary, courts may once again play the role of mapmaker.

The Commonwealth Court fast-tracked a lawsuit this week, with a judge ordering all parties in the case — including Wolf, lawmakers, and good-government groups — to submit proposed maps by Jan. 24.

If the normal process hasn’t produced a map by Jan. 30, the court said, it will impose one.

There’s little sign that Wolf and Republican lawmakers will produce a map by that deadline.

Republicans in the state House introduced a map last month that they later amended, but Wolf accused the GOP of skewing it to help the party.

Republicans, in turn, criticized Wolf for refusing to sit down and negotiate. They advanced the map anyway, passing it out of the House this week and sending it to the Senate, where a committee vote is scheduled Tuesday.

The Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, has said maps should be finalized by Jan. 24. Courts could change the date of the primary election or the deadlines leading up to it for candidates to file paperwork. But the ongoing delay and uncertainty still has practical implications for candidates who aren’t sure where the new district boundaries will fall.

Political operatives in both parties said the delay could especially hinder challengers who still don’t know how competitive each district will be, what the boundaries are, and even if they live in the district where they want to run.

“You don’t want to do a tour of the district and then the district changes,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic consultant from Western Pennsylvania who said he has one client who delayed a full campaign kickoff to wait for the map. “It’s causing heartburn.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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