Two things will drive the 2012 elections: the economy and redistricting. The economy will be the major issue, but elections are often won and lost by where you draw the lines. The census data indicates that in Washington state redistricting should produce two wide open, highly competitive congressional elections in 2012, and a legislative playing field tilted a bit more in favor of the GOP.
In Washington state, we do redistricting the right way. Rather than letting the majority party in the legislature draw the maps, we appoint a four-person commission made up of two Republicans and two Democrats. Three out of the four have to agree in order to produce a plan. This commission is now at work, and has until the end of 2011 to draw new congressional and legislative maps.
Although redistricting can get rather "creative," our commission system, and the courts, have made outright gerrymandering pretty much impossible. Districts all have to be the same population size. They have to be contiguous. And they need to keep “communities of interest” intact as much as possible. "Communities of interest" would include cities, counties, recognized neighborhoods, etc. Data drives redistricting.
We now have census data for each of the nine congressional districts and the 49 legislative districts. Each of the new congressional districts needs to include just over 672,000 people; the new legislative districts will have just over 137,000. For a Republican or Democrat, it is generally good news if your current districts are too big (too much population) and bad news if they are too small (too little population). If your districts are too big that means you can spread your voters into more districts, giving you a chance to win more seats. Being too small means your current districts get larger and your partisan advantage is diluted.
The first rule of Washington state politics is the farther away you get from downtown Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, and Vancouver, the more Republican the state becomes. The new outer-ring suburbs are more Republican than the older, close-in suburbs. The 2010 census data shows that east Pierce County, King County east of lake Sammamish, suburban Clark County, and the Tri Cities are the fast growing areas in the state, while growth closer in to the urban core has slowed.
On the legislative side, this pattern of growth should increase the chances of Republican gains in 2012. Consider the situation in the urban core of western Washington. There are 14 legislative districts in the central Puget Sound west of lake Washington, running north-south from Everett, through Seattle and Tacoma, to Lakewood. Those 14 districts are overwhelmingly Democratic, electing only two Republicans to the legislature, and they are all too small in terms of population. Taken together this group of districts has to add over 120,000 people to its boundaries. All these districts need to get larger, pushing their boundaries to the north, south, or east.
This means that highly competitive suburban districts on their borders, such as districts 1, 44, 45, 41, 47, 28, 31, and 25, will be pushed east, made a bit more compact, and more Republican. All these districts are considered toss ups now and produced close races in 2010. This process will likely push some of them more firmly into the Republican column.
Another scenario would involve moving an entire district out of Seattle and placing it in the fast-growing suburbs in Pierce or Clark counties. Seattle has enough population to merit slightly more than four legislative districts. Currently the 43rd, 46th, and 36th districts lie entirely in the city limits, while the 34th, 11th, and 37th districts begin in downtown and reach south into Highline, Tukwila, and Renton. That’s six "Seattle districts." The Republicans can certainly make the claim that a current Seattle district should be relocated.
Either way, it is very possible that some Democratic incumbents in or near Seattle will be forced to run against other Democratic incumbents. In the north end, for example, seven Democratic legislators — Marco Liias, Maralyn Chase, Cindy Ryu, Ruth Kagi, Rosemary McAuliffe, Derek Stanford, and Luis Moscoso — all live within a few miles of each other, near the borders between the 32nd, 1st, and 21st districts. The 32nd has to grow by 15,000 people, and it almost certainly will have to grow north, swallowing up the homes of the Democratic legislators on the other side of the current boundary.
The challenges for the Democrats aren’t confined exclusively to Seattle. In Spokane, for instance, the heavily Democratic downtown 3rd district has to add 16,000 people. This will give Republicans a chance to move Democratic precincts from the currently competitive 6th district into the Democratic 3rd, making the 6th a safe GOP district once again.
The Democratic commissioners will do all they can to mitigate the damage, but the data will almost certainly produce a map that will increase the chances that Republicans gain seats in Olympia.
On the congressional side, all eyes will be on where the new 10th district ends up. That district will certainly be competitive, and it is highly likely that the 1st Congressional district seat, which Rep. Jay Inslee is expected to vacate to run for governor, will be competitive as well.
Using the community-of-interest factor, Republicans should be able to keep all of Seattle in the 7th district, the Democratic bastion held by Jim McDermott. Rep. Dave Reichert (R-8th) lives east of Auburn, and he probably wants a district that runs south from his home, jettisoning the highly competitive Eastside and its close-in suburbs. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-2nd) will probably succeed in keeping downtown Everett in his district. Rep. Adam Smith (D-9th) may inherit more of Thurston County.
That would leave the 1st and the new 10th as open seats made up suburban communities from Federal Way and Highline, to Bellevue and the Eastside, and north into south Snohomish counties. I think this arrangement of the political geography is the most likely scenario, and it would certainly produce two very interesting Congressional in 2012.