I still say there are bet­ter ways to decide which posi­tion to eliminate!”

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
  • Con­ti­gu­ity
  • Main­tain­ing exist­ing county/​city lines
  • Com­pact­ness

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:

Dis­trict Incum­bent DW-​​Nominate
IA1 Bra­ley –0.405
IA2 Loeb­sack –0.367
IA3 Boswell –0.262
IA4 Latham 0.330
IA5 King 0.663

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.

Cur­rent Iowa Con­gres­sional dis­trict map

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:

Pro­posed new Iowa Con­gres­sional dis­trict map

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.

Strate­gic Maneuvers

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 5050 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.