All Over the Map in Iowa
Given the heated battles that can be fought over district lines, what does an eminently pragmatic and fair-minded state like Iowa do when faced with the challenge of reducing their Congressional alignment from five districts to four? Do they succumb to the partisanship, gerrymandering, and hyper-political warfare that typically predominate redistricting in other states? Or, can we trust Iowans to find an apolitical solution?
Actually, Iowans have a well-established process that is among the fairest and least political in the nation. In Iowa, the state legislature gets involved only in approving the plans as crafted and presented by a non-partisan “Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission” (TRAC). The Congresspeople themselves have absolutely no say in keeping their seats. Instead, the TRAC draws the districts using software to help them maximize the following:
- Population equity
- Maintaining existing county/city lines
Notice that maintaining constituencies or incumbent seats is not on that list!
The five-person TRAC determines the best possible fit, then presents three maps (Congress, State Senate, State House) to the Iowa legislature. TRAC’s maps are also published online for public comment. Usually, the maps are quickly approved and implemented by the legislature. If for some reason the legislature doesn’t accept the first plan, TRAC will submit a second non-revisable option. In the rare event that is also rejected, they get a third and final attempt. The last time it went past the second round was in 1981. The legislature has until Sept 1st to come to an agreement; if not, the state’s Supreme Court gets to decide. Naturally, the Governor can veto any plan, whether from the legislature or the courts, and all stages of the process are up for public scrutiny, because Iowa has a very open process.
This round, things are trickier than usual, because the folks in the legislature now have access to the TRAC’s software, so they can fiddle with the maps and numbers to their political hearts’ content. They can input voter registration stats and other demographics into the calculations to see if the maps are more or less favorable to them. That leads to things like this, where there’s intraparty gamesmanship on who best to profit from the number-fiddling. There also has been substantial pushback from Republicans in particular, perhaps partly because they think they can press the advantage they have with a Republican Governor’s veto pen. They want a more solid advantage in the west, and they want to secure incumbency for both of their current Representatives. But there are risks to rejecting this first (best) map; there’s no assurance the next one will be more advantageous to them, and it’s likely to be less.
The current TRAC proposal is supposedly the “best fit” with the fairness criteria of any maps they’ve ever produced. So, with split state houses—the Senate is Democratic-controlled and the House is Republican—I’m fairly confident that they’ll either accept the TRAC proposal or something close to it. From a Democratic perspective, the only worry would be that the Republican Governor will exercise his veto power, but he’s made some fair, nonpartisan decisions in the past, which is how he managed to get himself elected this most recent time, by looking like the lone grownup.
What Does the Map Look Like?
The split in Iowa is currently three Democrats and two Republicans. On a scale from liberal to conservative, their DW-Nominate scores break down like this:
As you can see, Iowa is currently represented by three relatively moderate Democrats, one relatively moderate Republican, and one staunchly conservative Republican. For an odd number of representatives, the overall balance is fairly even, which Iowa would ideally like to maintain.
The differences in going from five seats to four are fairly dramatic. The current (old) map has one big district in the west, one in the north, and three eastern districts for Des Moines/Ames, the northern river cities, and the southeast “college” district. The proposed (new) map would have two western districts, a slightly expanded northeast district, and a shifted southeast district, with the original third district being swallowed in bits by the other four. The real question is how this impacts the current Congress, and that’s where it gets interesting:
IA4: The current Republican Representatives from Districts 4 and 5 both end up living in the new, solidly Republican District 4. Reps. King and Latham will have some interesting choices to make.
IA3: The current Democratic Representative from IA3 (Boswell) still technically lives within the new IA3, but instead of being a central/liberal district, most of that district will now be western Republican territory. Des Moines is the only county that Boswell retains from the original IA3 and the rest of the new district won’t like that dang liberal from Des Moines.
IA2: Oops! None of the current Representatives reside in the new IA2. At first, this district looks very similar to the old, heavily Democratic IA2, with mostly college towns and other eastern liberals, but the addition of seven conservative counties from the rural stretch between Iowa City and Des Moines will tilt it more to the toss up column. A well-established in-state Republican like Marionette Miller-Meeks may find that she can win this district in the absence of a true Democratic incumbent.
IA1: The current Democratic Representatives from IA1 and IA2 both end up living in the new, solidly Democratic IA1. Hypothetically, Rep. Dave Loebsack could move a few miles south from Linn County to Johnson County and rejoin most of his former constituents in the new IA2, leaving IA1 for Rep. Braley to defend.
At the macro-level, the redraw is a testament to Iowa’s eminent fairness where the two more liberal Democrats, Braley and Loebsack, find themselves in the same district, and likewise the two Republicans find themselves in the same district. The man in the middle’s incumbency is tacitly preserved, but his district becomes much more competitive. Similarly, there is a sense of balance with the four seats, where the northwest remains safely Republican, the northeast remains safely Democratic, but the two southern districts become battlegrounds. The southwest district will be fifteen conservative counties plus Des Moines, which even the moderate Rep. Boswell will likely struggle to defend. The southeast district would have no incumbent, and the predominantly Democratic district trades liberal Linn County for Clinton, Scott, and seven other substantially conservative counties, opening the door for an aspiring Republican.
At the micro-level, this seemingly fair realignment creates significant strategic puzzles for both Republicans and Democrats.
In the western half of the state, the two Republicans who find themselves together in IA4 will have to make a choice whether to fight a primary battle with one another, thus ceding IA3 to the vulnerable Boswell, or whether one of them should move a few miles south to try to pick up that seat for their team. At a party level, it seems self-evident that they should avoid a self-defeating primary in IA4 and one of the two Representatives should move south to the newly competitive IA3 and try to knock off an old Democrat. At a personal level, that decision gets tricky. Would either Latham or King give up a sure seat in the northwest for a tough but winnable fight in the southwest? Which one wants to make the sacrifice? Given that the new IA4 consists of roughly equal halves of the old IA4 and IA5, both Republican Representatives have reasonable claims to it. That makes it difficult to convince one to move to IA3, where he would end up facing an “incumbent” Democrat, even if the crusty Democrat retains only a single county of his prior constituency. In King’s case, twelve of the fifteen new counties in IA3 were all formerly represented by him as part of IA5, so they already know him well. However, King’s staunch conservatism would be a hard sell with the liberals and moderates in the more populous portion of the new district. In comparison, living just thirty minutes from Des Moines, Latham is a more moderate Republican who would probably find it easier to make inroads in the Des Moines area while maintaining the faith with the conservative counties farther to the west. However, having only three counties of his former constituency would probably hamper his ground game, and he recently moved to his new home and is very upset at the suggestion that he should move again. My guess is that someone from the party will have to talk some sense into both men if Republicans really want to keep two seats in the west part of the state.
Democrats also have strategy conundrum in the eastern portion of the state, where both Loebsack and Braley end up in the new IA1. If state Democrats could make one tiny change to the district map, they’d want to swap Linn County for any county in IA2 so that both Democrats could retain their incumbencies. Loebsack has simplified this somewhat by signaling his illingness to move about two miles south so that he’s in Johnson County, but that may not save his seat.
First of all, with no automatic incumbent in IA2, former first lady Christie Vilsack has hinted that she might make a run in the district, and there could be pressure from party insiders for Loebsack to step aside on her behalf. So, whether Loebsack moves or not, he’s likely to face a primary battle where his opponent either paints him as an interloper or a carpetbagger. If that’s not bad enough, the addition of several new conservative counties to the formerly liberal IA2 means the general election will be a battle, too. A newly-strengthened Republican (such as Miller-Meeks) could conceivably win against either Loebsack or Vilsack.
In summary, the redistricting process in Iowa has created a map with something for both Democrats and Republicans to both love and hate. This seems fitting in a state where the power balances on the edge of a plow’s blade. Iowa is a traditionally moderate state that regularly sends one Democrat and one Republican to the US Senate, frequently alternates the party in the Governor’s mansion, and votes for a split-rule state house. It looks like they’re headed to a similar 50⁄50 split in the new Congressional districts. Having one safe seat for ach major party and two competitive seats seems about as fair as one could hope in this age of hyper-partisanship.
- There Will Be No Steve King vs. Tom Latham Primary in New Iowa Fourth Congressional District in 2012 (caffeinatedthoughts.com)
- Eastern Iowans cold to splitting Iowa City and Cedar Rapids in U.S. House (thegazette.com)
- Redistricting plan impacts numerous Iowa House, Senate districts (thegazette.com)
- Iowa redistricting maps set for unveiling tomorrow (thegazette.com)
- Proposed redistricting map puts Braley, Loebsack in same district (thegazette.com)
- Branstad to sign Iowa redistricting plan (thegazette.com)
- “Latham to Challenge Boswell Thanks to Iowa Redistricting” and related posts (rollcall.com)
- Iowa redistricting would pit lawmakers against each other (reuters.com)
- Gerrymandering? Not in Iowa (timesunion.com)
About mclever (5 posts)
“Mac” is a software consultant living in a midwestern state full of cornfields. With degrees in math, music, and education, Mac claims to be an expert in nothing but interested in everything, especially sci-fi, sports, theology, music, politics, and competitive bridge. Probably has an opinion on any topic you pick. If not, Mac’ll think one up for you!