Congressional races in Ohio have been a foregone conclusion for years, a study in Republican dominance. But a federal court’s decision Friday to upend the maps creates a possibility of a seismic political shift in the state.
Since 2012, the makeup of Ohio’s congressional delegation has consistently been 12 Republicans and four Democrats. The court ruled the GOP-drawn maps were unconstitutional and ordered new maps to be drawn this year for the 2020 election.
The case is far from over at this point. The state is appealing it to the U.S. Supreme Court. And cases involving North Carolina and Maryland are awaiting a final ruling from the high court, which would affect the Ohio case.
To be clear, new congressional maps for the 2020 election, a presidential election year, are wildly hypothetical. Even if the ruling is upheld, there’s no guarantee for how the maps would be redrawn.
But if Ohio is forced to redistrict for 2020, it opens a floodgate of possibilities, particularly for Democrats.
“Any way you look at it, from a congressional delegation point for two years, Democrats will pick up seats,” said Nancy Miller, a political science professor at the University of Dayton who’s written on gerrymandering. “The only way that new map is going to pass muster in the court is for Democrats to get more congressional seats.”
Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political handicapping publication at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, agreed, but said there could be a trade-off with some of the safe Democrats.
In the event the maps are redrawn, a Democratic Hamilton County seat seemed the most likely addition, he said. Other possibilities for Democratic-leaning competitive seats included Toledo and Akron or suburban Cleveland and Franklin counties.
But not all of the current Democrats would necessarily be safe, Kondik said.
“Tim Ryan’s district was drawn to be a Democratic vote sink, but the parts that are a Democratic vote sink aren’t that Democratic anymore,” Kondik said. “Particularly, if you took some parts away from it in Akron, that could turn into a swing district real fast.”
David Niven, political science professor at the University of Cincinnati and a witness in the gerrymandering case, said Cincinnati would be ground zero for the change.
The city has trended significantly Democratic in the past decade, but is currently represented by Republicans Steve Chabot and Brad Wenstrup, a result of splitting the city in half and countering the Democratic vote with Republican areas like Warren and Clermont counties.
“Cincinnati is the best example,” Niven said. “Any district drawn within Hamilton County’s boundaries was going to be Democratic. The only way to avoid that was to zig-zag it and pair it with surrounding counties.”
Outside of the numbers, new maps would yield significant residual effects, both in Ohio and nationally.
First is a broadened talent pool for Democrats. Gerrymandering has significantly stifled upward mobility for young Democrats with political ambitions. They’re largely confined to safe districts with long-serving incumbents.
Cincinnati, again, is a prime example.
“It opens up a pipeline,” Niven said. “It dramatically affects city politics. Every Democrat on the council’s dream had to be limited to becoming mayor. Now you have a new dream available to you.”
Nationally, it would give U.S. House Democrats a greater cushion heading into 2020. Democrats currently have a 17-seat majority and while one or two added from Ohio wouldn’t be a make-or-break deal, it would provide a little bit of breathing room in the event of losses in 2020.