Newly released federal census data now puts Illinois on a fast track toward redrawing the state’s congressional boundaries, and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hold on power may well depend on the outcome of this decennial blood sport in Springfield.
Slight population losses mean Illinois’ 18-member congressional delegation will shrink by one seat, and Democrats who control the redistricting process are looking to reshuffle the political deck in a way that could make two of the state’s best-known Republicans odd-men-out.
One of the nation’s top election forecasters and an expert on congressional redistricting is David Wasserman, senior editor with The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter. The Washington, D.C. subscriber-only publication is widely regarded as one of the Beltway’s daily, go-to destinations for political animals of all stripes.
Wasserman predicts the current Illinois delegation will tilt even more Democratic despite the state losing a congressional seat because of a slight population decline since 2010.
WBEZ political reporter Dave McKinney talked with Wasserman, who explained how Illinois’ upcoming congressional reapportionment fits into the national political picture and described whose fortunes may be rising and falling as a result. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Last week the U.S. Census Bureau released data that now will be used to redraw Illinois’s compressional boundaries. Can you tell us how Illinois fits into the national picture and how it could influence whether Nancy Pelosi remains speaker?
Illinois is absolutely pivotal in the race for House control. Keep in mind, the Democrats have virtually no margin for error. They’re sitting on a five-seat majority, and Republicans could conceivably pick up 10 seats from redistricting in the states that they control.
[Republicans] control far more states than Democrats, including some big ones like Texas, Florida and North Carolina, which are all gaining seats, and Georgia. Democrats have to counteract that somehow considering that neither the Supreme Court nor Congress have stepped in to curb the practice of gerrymandering.
And that means that their mission really falls to two big states that they control: Illinois and New York. Now, Democrats are already at 13 to 5 advantage in Illinois, but they’re looking to extend that to as much as 14 to 3. The irony is that the two Republicans at the greatest risk of seeing their districts eliminated or at least made unwinnable are the two Republicans in the delegation that Democrats like the most: [U.S. Rep.] Adam Kinzinger and [U.S. Rep.] Rodney Davis.
So, talk about that for a moment here. You identify sort of the potential odd men out here among the Republicans. What trajectory does this take their political careers if they’re out of the picture moving forward for the congressional delegation?
Well, just about the only reason Democrats might flinch at the idea of targeting them is they could threaten to run for statewide office to try to get back at Democrats somehow.
The problem in Kinzinger’s case is that it’s really hard to see how he can make it past any Republican primary for any office after siding with Democrats against Trump on impeachment and other matters. And Democrats figure that they’re not eliminating his district necessarily so much as a Trump Republican, who would beat him in a primary.
And that would really be the impetus for dismantling Illinois’ 16th District, which is kind of a buffer zone as it is between Chicagoland and downstate. It goes all the way from the Indiana border to the Wisconsin border, and Democrats could spare it for parts.
It’s interesting you don’t mention the name of Republican Congresswoman Mary Miller. She and her husband were in Washington, D.C., on the date of the Jan. 6 insurrection. She’s a pretty incendiary presence on the political stage here in Illinois. Do you think it’s in Democrats’ interest to keep her around?
It ironically is, and the reason is that it’s almost impossible for Democrats to target her district or to try and make it really blue. She simply represents an overwhelmingly Republican part of the state. It’s only gotten more so the last decade.
It’s actually in Democrats’ interest if they want to hold a majority to pack her district with Republicans, to keep Champaign carved out of it, to perhaps draw [U.S. Rep.] Rodney Davis’ district so that it connects Champaign with East St. Louis … to make it into a district that voted for Biden by more than 15 points.
Currently, Davis’ district only voted for Trump by 3, but that would be as much as a 20-point swing and make it almost unwinnable for anyone with an R next to their name.
Do you see any sort of particular shake-ups in the boundaries that are drawn in Chicago and the collar counties?
I do, and the No. 1 priority for Democrats in Chicagoland is to shore up [U.S. Rep.] Lauren Underwood, who only won re-election by a razor-thin margin in 2020. Democrats could very easily shore her up by adding some very heavily Democratic precincts in Joliet or Bolingbrook to her district. Currently, her district only voted for Biden by 2 or 3 points. We’re looking at potentially that district, after the redraw, voting for Biden by 15 points.
Now, the question for Democrats is, how do they protect the seat where Cheri Bustos is retiring in the northwest. And there are enough Democrats to spread around to accomplish all of these goals, but they’re going to have to resort to some pretty crazy looking boundaries to get there. And the big question is whether the Illinois Supreme Court will be OK with that.
One of the drawings that you have put out on Twitter for the soon-to-be redrawn Bustos district in northwestern Illinois, it would take in DeKalb, it would take in Macomb, two college towns. When you think about gerrymandering, that is what a gerrymandered district looks like.
That’s right, and yet it doesn’t actually look as bad as the maps for state legislative districts that Democrats passed earlier this year. We already know that Democrats are willing to resort to some pretty creative cartography to get what they want. I expect that to be true on the congressional map and in the fight for the House, as well.
What does the newly released census data say about shifting power dynamics in Illinois?
Well, this data set came in much stronger than expected for urban areas, and we saw even steeper declines in population than projections showed in rural areas. That was especially true in Illinois. And as a result, it means that there will be more power concentrated in Chicago and its suburbs, that Democrats don’t have to pinwheel districts as far out into rural parts of northern Illinois as they might have thought before we got this census data set.
It wasn’t that long ago that Republicans held the governor’s mansion in Illinois, and it felt as if they had some political presence here. This is the third straight decade now that Democrats have controlled the map-making process. What is it going to take for Illinois Republicans to ever be a force again given the way they just keep losing on redistricting?
This is why redistricting is so pernicious overall in America to governing. It allows the majority to steamroll the minority.
The most predictable net outcome of this redistricting cycle nationwide is that we’re going to see much more polarization. Blue states are going to send even bluer delegations to Washington. Red states are going to send even redder delegations to Washington. And it’s true that the best-laid plans of these mapmakers can be undone by demographic change or big swings in elections over the next decade.
But America has become so hardened in its political divisions that the way districts are drawn is existential for parties. And if Democrats don’t seek maximum advantage, they could be on the short end of the stick when it comes to the fight for power in Washington.
In Illinois, those numbers that were released last week showed an increase in Hispanic and Latino population statewide. The white population seemed to drop a little bit, and the Black population was generally static. Do you think we’re going to see any kind of increase in representation for Latinos and Hispanics now that their numbers are up?
At the state legislative level, absolutely. At the congressional level, it’s a more complicated picture. Although we did see a huge increase in the Hispanic share of the population of Chicago in the last decade, it’s unclear that there are enough Hispanic citizens of voting age to support two majority-Hispanic districts.
And it’s unclear that Congressman [Jesus] ‘Chuy’ Garcia, who currently represents the infamous ‘earmuff district,’ the 4th district that connects Hispanic neighborhoods on the North and South sides, would support such a plan to unpack or disconnect the earmuffs into two separate Hispanic districts in which Hispanics would still be a bit shy of 50% citizens of voting age.
Based on what I’m picking up, it seems as if the preference would be to keep that 4th District together, at least among Democrats. But it is going to be a source of debate in the coming months.
You talked a little bit about the state legislative boundaries. When Democrats drew legislative maps in the spring, they used census estimates and now there is some deviation — at least Republicans are saying that — from the actual census data released last week. Do you have any sense whether these legislative maps are in trouble?
It’s going to be up to courts to decide.
This is an unprecedented situation. We’ve never seen a delay in census data. In this case, it was pandemic-induced that caused maps to be delayed beyond that deadline or at least beyond which one party could pass a map it wanted with actual census data.
So we’re really in uncharted territory. But the deviation was significant. And when Republicans point out that the maps don’t line up with the census data that we got last week, they do have a point because, in fact, a much greater share or or at least a little greater share than we thought of Illinois’ population is located in Chicago, according to the census.
That helps Democrats. It should help Democrats keep more power in the bluest part of the state. But it also could threaten the designs that Democrats put out and passed before we had actual hard census data in hand.
Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.