Back to the drawing board

Expect the redistricting maps to come out if the GOP wins big

It's become something of a dirty word under the Gold Dome in recent years, but if Georgia Republicans make sizable gains in the Nov. 2 elections, you're likely to hear more of it.

The word? Redistricting.

If Republicans retain their grip on the state Senate and manage to eke out a narrow majority in the state House for the first time in 130 years, we'll see a slew of changes.

There'd be a new House speaker, of course, and a freshly streamlined lawmaking process tailored to a GOP agenda. But probably the most clandestinely discussed byproduct of a Republican takeover of the Statehouse would be yet another round of reapportionment.

Oh no, you say, didn't we just go through that? Well, yes. Georgia's congressional and state legislative districts were redrawn amid great controversy in 2001 by then-Gov. Roy Barnes and crew. And the state House and Senate maps were modified again last year by a three-judge panel as a result of a legal challenge to the 2001 maps. Pundits largely agree that the nakedly partisan 2001 reapportionment backfired on the Democrats; voter anger at the obvious gerrymandering of Georgia's congressional districts was one of many factors that helped sweep Barnes out of office, according to both Republicans and Democrats.

But even the maps of today were drawn, more or less, by Democrats. State Republicans never have had a turn at the redistricting table. If they take control of both chambers of the Legislature, they could use the remapping process to shore up gains from the election — and to assure GOP dominance in the congressional delegation for years to come.

"I think they'll be tempted to redraw the congressional districts," following the example set by GOP legislators in Texas last year, says University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

Of course, Georgia Republican leaders would want to avoid the hardball tactics on display in Austin last year, when U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay strong-armed the Texas Legislature into a sharply partisan reapportionment of that state's congressional seats in a move partly intended to help re-elect President Bush.

In fact, some Georgia Republicans don't view a trip back to the map-drawing board as worth the PR risk.

"It's bad public policy to keep redrawing the state," says Fran Millar, a veteran GOP House member from DeKalb. "Eventually, people will get sick of it. It'll be [Gov. Sonny] Perdue's call, but it could hurt his re-election hopes."

But, as Bullock explains, Republicans would greatly benefit from redrawing the 3rd, 11th and 12th districts, all of which have constituencies that lean Democratic, or are expected to do so in the next few years.

Such changes could be expected to produce a 9-4 GOP majority in Congress in the 2006 elections, Bullock says. (Currently, the state has eight Republicans and five Democrats in Congress, but Democrats stand a good chance of picking up a seat Nov. 2.)

Two weeks before the election, Republican leaders are understandably reluctant to admit they've got plans in the works to submit long-suffering Georgians to more redistricting — nor are they all willing to rule it out. Although the Legislature is required to redistrict the state once a decade to reflect the new Census figures, Georgia law places no restrictions on how often reapportionment can take place.

"It's a possibility that we would look at the congressional maps, but it's premature to speculate before the election," says House Minority Leader Glenn Richardson of Dallas, who stands to inherit the post of House Speaker if his party wins the lower chamber.

But some of his fellow party members are less shy about discussing the taboo subject of redistricting.

"If the Republicans win, I think this'll be one of the first pieces of legislation you'll see," says Chuck Clay, a former state GOP chairman and Senate minority leader who lost his bid for the 6th Congressional District seat this summer. A longtime fixture in state politics, Clay is one of few Georgia Republicans ever to have seen the inside of a redistricting committee room.

Because of the bad taste left in the public's mouth from the 2001 reapportionment, Clay explains, "You have to look like you're putting communities back together that were torn apart."

In some cases, that won't be a tough sell, even to jaded voters who understand that reapportionment is the most political of exercises.

Consider, for example, the 11th Congressional District, which was drawn with a Democratic candidate in mind, but now is occupied by Phil Gingrey, a Marietta Republican. Stretching from Chattooga County in the north to Columbus in the south, and surrounding — but not including — most of Troup and Harris counties, the outrageously gerrymandered 11th is the "poster child of bad reapportionment," Clay says.

And if those changes can help Gingrey hang on to a district now is seeing an influx of Democratic voters, well, so much the better for Republicans. What's more, with several districts on the political cusp, it wouldn't take a tremendous amount of tinkering to throw Georgia solidly into the GOP win column, Bullock points out.

Although the emphasis would be placed on Congress, GOP leaders would likely "tweak" state legislative districts to strengthen the party's position in several up-for-grabs metro Atlanta seats, says Clay.

Of course, all of the redistricting planning and rumors will be moot if the Democrats keep their majority in the House, right? Well, that likely depends on the size of that majority. Currently, Democrats control 102 of 180 House districts, but both sides expect the Democrats to lose seats Nov. 2. The question is, how many?

If, for instance, the Democrats retain 93 districts, that's only a three-seat margin, which could easily be erased by rural Democrats' post-election party-switching, which most observers expect to see. In other words, the tighter the margin, the greater likelihood that Democratic turncoats would cause the House to flip to the GOP.

Most political observers agree that the Democrats need to keep at least 95 House seats to have any kind of comfort zone. Otherwise, things could start to get real interesting under the Gold Dome.