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Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled proposed congressional maps as deadlines loom

Wolf has been butting heads heads with Republicans over the decennial redistricting, and intervention by the courts is increasingly likely.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a new map of congressional districts Saturday, the first proposal he’s released as he butts heads with Republicans over the decennial redistricting and intervention by the courts becomes increasingly likely.

Wolf released his map for the state’s 17 U.S. House districts while also touting the “citizens’ map” drawn through the Draw the Lines project of Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based good-government group. Without actually endorsing either, his office called them better than the one the Republican-controlled legislature is advancing.

“Throughout the congressional redistricting process, I have publicly outlined the requirements for a fair map that I would consider signing,” said Wolf, a Democrat. “While the House Republican map does not comply with those basic principles, I am highlighting two maps that do.”

Republicans pushed back immediately, criticizing Wolf for not negotiating a map with them and waiting until now to release his own. In a statement, the top House Republican leaders called the governor “completely and willfully negligent in openly refusing to participate” in the mapmaking process.

Without willing Republican partners, Wolf’s proposal has no obvious path to becoming law through the normal legislative process. He can instead submit it to a state court later this month in hopes of it being chosen as the new map.

Wolf’s map would create nine Democratic or Democratic-leaning districts and eight Republican or Republican-leaning ones, according to an analysis conducted for The Inquirer by the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project. There would be six strongly Democratic and six strongly Republican districts in which the party won more than 55% of the 2016 and 2020 presidential vote. In addition, three districts would be Democratic-leaning, with less than 55% of the presidential vote going blue, and two districts would be Republican-leaning.

The map, if enacted, would add a somewhat more Democratic tilt to one Western Pennsylvania battleground now held by Democrats — but in Republicans’ reach — by adding a portion of Pittsburgh, though it would still be closely divided. Competitive districts based in Bucks County, Chester County and the Lehigh Valley would remain so, and a large district in the Central part of the state would have not one but two Republican incumbents, forcing them to face off.

Time is running out for a map to be enacted through the normal legislative process. Many observers have long suspected that Wolf and lawmakers would be unable to reach an agreement, and Republicans have criticized the governor for refusing to negotiate. As that process has appeared increasingly likely to fail, a lawsuit asking state courts to draw the map has heated up, with the Commonwealth Court this week fast-tracking the case and asking for map proposals.

Under that order, Wolf and the legislature have just over two weeks to agree on a map — or the court will impose one.

Saturday was the first time Wolf proposed his own specific ideas for how districts should be drawn this year. The governor previously released general principles he believes maps should follow, and opposed the map making its way through the legislature. But he hasn’t negotiated the actual drawing of the lines, frustrating Republicans.

Republicans repeated that criticism Saturday, accusing him of abdicating responsibility.

“By releasing his maps today, Gov. Wolf is completing the final play of his well-worn playbook of refusing to work with the legislature on substantive issues, waiting until the clock has nearly run out, and then changing his mind and attempting to issue a unilateral ultimatum that is devoid of all sincerity of effort,” said Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), the speaker of the House, and Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), the House majority leader, in a statement.

State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), chair of the House State Government Committee, compared the process of working with Wolf to “trying to potty train my headstrong 3-year-old.”

» READ MORE: Democrats are suddenly fighting each other over Pennsylvania redistricting

Redistricting has become a potent political issue in recent years, drawing attention to what was once seen as a wonky topic.

States redraw their congressional maps every 10 years to reflect population changes measured in the census. How lines are drawn helps shape the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives and the influence and representation of local communities at the federal level for a decade. Pennsylvania is losing one of its 18 seats.

The high-stakes process will shape control of Congress next year, and for the following decade. Pennsylvania is home to about a half-dozen potentially competitive House districts, and the new map, by adding new voters to each district, will decide which ones become safer — or more treacherous — for each party.

Republicans, appearing to have the political winds at their backs, are targeting several Democratic-held districts as they push to take control of the House.

One would become a bit safer for Democrats, but still be within Republican reach, under Wolf’s plan.

He would move some of Pittsburgh’s heavily Democratic voters into the suburban swing district held by U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb. Under Wolf’s lines, 53.5% of the district’s voters supported President Joe Biden in 2020, instead of the 51.3% under the current map, according to the analysis. Even that small a shift in such a tightly divided district could help Wolf’s party, especially since Lamb is running for Senate, leaving Democrats without a tested incumbent there.

» READ MORE: What to watch as Pennsylvania loses a congressional seat: ‘The stakes are really high’

Incumbent Republicans Fred Keller and John Joyce would be drawn together in a district in the center of the state, potentially forcing two Republicans to run against each other.

In Northeast Pennsylvania, the district held by Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright would move a hair rightward, but remain competitive.

One significant shift — moving Harrisburg to a new district — would make one Republican much safer, and give another one a tougher district. The capital city would leave Rep. Scott Perry’s district, making it hard for Democrats to beat him after taking aim at him in several recent elections. It would become part of Rep. Lloyd Smucker’s district, suddenly making his Lancaster County-based district much more closely balanced, if still leaning right.

Bucks County Republican Brian Fitzpatrick, Chester County Democrat Chrissy Houlahan, and Lehigh County Democrat Susan Wild would all remain in competitive territory. Each are top targets for the opposing party.

Redistricting after the last census helped cement GOP control of competitive suburban seats for nearly a decade.

That Republican-drawn map in 2011 so favored the GOP that, in election after election, the same 13 districts picked Republicans and the same five districts elected Democrats, even in a state that was close to evenly split overall. That happened even as the state voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016, and sent Bob Casey, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, to the U.S. Senate.

The state Supreme Court overturned that map in 2018, saying it was skewed so strongly for Republicans that it violated the state constitution’s guarantee that “elections shall be free and equal.”

» READ MORE: What new census data tell us about Pennsylvania politics

This time, as the clock ticks for a map to be finalized in time for the May 17 primary, courts may once again play the role of mapmaker.

The Commonwealth Court fast-tracked a lawsuit this week, with a judge ordering all parties in the case — including Wolf, lawmakers, and good-government groups — to submit proposed maps by Jan. 24.

If the normal process hasn’t produced a map by Jan. 30, the court said, it will impose one.

There’s little sign that Wolf and Republican lawmakers will produce a map by that deadline.

Republicans in the state House introduced a map last month that they later amended, but Wolf accused the GOP of skewing it to help the party.

Republicans, in turn, criticized Wolf for refusing to sit down and negotiate. They advanced the map anyway, passing it out of the House this week and sending it to the Senate, where a committee vote is scheduled Tuesday.

The Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, has said maps should be finalized by Jan. 24. Courts could change the date of the primary election or the deadlines leading up to it for candidates to file paperwork. But the ongoing delay and uncertainty still has practical implications for candidates who aren’t sure where the new district boundaries will fall.

Political operatives in both parties said the delay could especially hinder challengers who still don’t know how competitive each district will be, what the boundaries are, and even if they live in the district where they want to run.

“You don’t want to do a tour of the district and then the district changes,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic consultant from Western Pennsylvania who said he has one client who delayed a full campaign kickoff to wait for the map. “It’s causing heartburn.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated which two congressional incumbents would be drawn into the same district under Wolf’s proposed congressional map. They are Reps. John Joyce and Fred Keller, both Republicans.