» Rio Grande Guardian: GOP: Peña party switch alters redistricting equation
» Beaumont Enterprise: Ritter’s switch helps him, but may benefit region in redistricting too
It’s marginally comforting to know that I’m not the only one who reads political stories these days and asks “What does this mean for redistricting?” In particular, Aaron Peña’s party switch really forces the issue for two reasons: a) he’s on the redistricting committee – and I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s chairing it in January; and b) it’s not hard to draw a GOP-leaning district in Hidalgo County. That said, I’m a bit skeptical that even Peña could draw two districts that remain in GOP hands through the next decade. Doing so would put Peña at severe risk of being unelected in his first “re-election campaign” as a Republican. That’s possible because more low-propensity voters tend to come out for Presidential campaigns and the issue set for those voters in South Texas is likely to favor Dem candidates a bit more.
Ritter’s situation is very different. His district is already GOP-leaning. So his switch just means that the map-makers won’t have to distort Jefferson County to make way for more Republicans. Had he not switched, in other words, you might have seen another district slice through Jefferson County, limiting the amount of friendly real estate for Ritter to peel off swing votes. The remainder of Ritter’s district might then have headed north to include an already GOP-leaning county full of new voters who aren’t familiar with Ritter and might be less willing to give him a personal vote. Now, none of that matters. They can pretty much scratch Jefferson County off their list of things to worry about.
Back to Hidalgo, there are two poorly kept secrets available to one and all: the two districts referenced in the Guardian are heavily Democratic; and they both contain some large pockets of GOP growth. In other words: the reason they’re so Democratic is because they mask the GOP growth within the county. Hard to blame gerrymandering on that, too. The main reason for the change has been development during the decade. So the visibility of GOP possibility wasn’t entirely clear as the LRB drew the lines in 2001, though they did seem to make a slight effort to make Veronica Gonzalez’ HD41 as GOP-tilting as possible. You can see from the election results that it gave a slight nod to two GOP statewides in 2002 and trended even more GOP friendly over the decade. Here’s the 2010 red/blue map of White-Perry results for Hidalgo County, with the residences of Aaron Peña and Veronica Gonzalez pinpointed:
The northern GOP precincts are more sparsely populated (4 precincts with a combined total of less than 1,000 Registered Voters) and I’m doubtful that they can even be the basis for which the county GOP bases its dream scenario of two GOP seats in the county. So don’t let the size of them mislead you. The core of the population is in the lower third of the county. This is merely to show how the GOP precincts of Hidalgo County are obfuscated by the overall district boundaries. Factor in population growth, and you can suddenly build a district in a more compact manner. This means those GOP boxes are now likely to be enough of a population for Republicans to elect Peña in 2012.
What would that end up looking like? The district you see below went 55-44 for John McCain in 2008 and 51-48 for Bill White in 2010. Basically, it takes the GOP-friendliest portions of Veronica Gonzales’ district and reaches into the Precinct 14 that Aaron Peña resides in. Granted, it’s not out of the question that he can plan a move in order to stave off that addition (the precincts needed for including PCT14 are more Dem-friendly). Based on the current census estimates, it doesn’t look as if this draft is far from being the basis of Peña’s dream district. If anything, I suspect there may be a precinct or two that can be shed from this outline if the population growth turns out to be big enough.
So, for all the talk about ideology and being taken for granted, what party switches really come down to is personal protection. It’s clear from the 2001 map that the LRB wanted to make the most GOP-friendly district they could and came up just short. This time around, everyone knows it’s possible. And that includes Aaron Peña. It’s faulty to look at his existing district and conclude that there’s no way he can get re-elected. It’s equally faulty to assume that, just because it’s South Texas, that any GOP candidate it toast. For all the self-interest involved, Peña was seeing the red-blue situation above from a ground level and acted on that, together with the likelihood that either he could get drawn out, or Veronica Gonzalez would get drawn out. Right now, Gonzalez is the first victim of redistricting unless she plans to move somewhere else in the county. As for Peña … he’ll be looking at getting re-elected to the Legislature as a Republican for the next decade. And probably being quite successful at it.