HARRISBURG — A proposed new map of Pennsylvania congressional districts may have sanded off some of the rougher edges of the current version, but it still amounts to a pro-Republican gerrymander, a chorus of Democrats complained Saturday as they urged Gov. Wolf to reject it.
The governor, whose administration is combing through the proposal with the advice of a prominent mathematics professor, is expected to announce his position on the new map early this week.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), the leaders of the GOP-controlled legislature, submitted the map Friday night in an effort to meet the deadline in a state Supreme Court order to redraw the current boundaries.
"The map that Republicans put forward last night does practically nothing to fix the partisan gerrymandering that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found violated the state's constitution," Eric Holder, former U.S. attorney general and chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said in a statement.
It was the latest turn in a political drama that has gripped the state capital for the last several weeks, one with major potential implications for national politics.
Scarnati and Turzai have said they believe the proposed map complies with the court's order, and their staffers said other factors, such as population and municipal boundaries, received greater weight than political parties when they redrew the map.
By one measure, the map is little changed. In 2016, 12 congressional districts voted for Republican President Trump and six were carried by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. That would have been true under the proposed map as well, according to an Inquirer/Daily News analysis.
Democrats hope to take control of the U.S. House in elections this fall, and their path to a majority runs through moderate turf in places like the Philadelphia suburbs.
The GOP map proposed Friday would create a question for Democrats and one of their top recruits in the country — Chrissy Houlahan. The Chester County Democrat is now running in the Sixth District against Rep. Ryan Costello, but her home in Devon would be moved to the neighboring Seventh District, centered on Delaware County.
That would potentially give her an easier path to Congress — since the Republican incumbent in the Seventh, Rep. Pat Meehan, is not running again and there is no clear front-runner in the crowded Democratic primary there. But it would also mean that Democrats would lose their best shot to unseat Costello in the kind of educated, suburban district where they see a chance to flip a seat.
Democrats' choice would come down to this: a strong opportunity, on paper, to flip one seat (in the Seventh District) while having little chance in the Sixth, or taking a shot at winning both seats, with somewhat tougher odds.
If Houlahan ran in the Seventh she would be a top-tier candidate in a district with no incumbent and a new map expected to lean left.
Democrats, however, might calculate that in this political environment they are likely to win a redrawn Seventh no matter what, especially with Meehan's departure, and might want to keep their strongest candidate in the tougher race against Costello.
"Chrissy is focused on campaigning and reaching out to voters," said Houlahan spokesman Rahul Kale. "We are not engaging in speculation."
Costello could be well-served by the maps. His district — which Clinton narrowly won — would become more conservative, and his challenger would be moved out. He said that he had "zero input" on the map and that the location of Houlahan's home made it likely she might be pushed into a redrawn Seventh District.
He said that the maps are drawn to address one of the state Supreme Court's main concerns — compactness and splitting counties — and that "the spine" of his district remains similar, running along Routes 100 and 422. Houlahan, he added, "can still run in the district against me. I'll beat her then, too."
Similar concerns have been raised in the western part of the state, during the lead-up to a highly contested special election in the 18th District to replace Rep. Tim Murphy, who resigned amid scandal and whose term was set to expire at the end of this year.
The redrawing would not apply to a March special election to temporarily fill that seat, but it could determine who will take that office for a full term.
Under the map proposed by Scarnati and Turzai, Democratic candidate Conor Lamb would be taken from the 18th District and placed in the 14th, pitting him against Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle. Lamb's Republican challenger, State Rep. Rick Saccone, would remain in the 18th.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny), pointing to that move as an example, said Saturday the new boundaries "are another case of overreach" by the GOP.
Congressional candidates do not have to live in the districts they represent, but not doing so is often a political liability.
Attorneys for the Republican leaders argued in their court filing that "the world is not divided neatly into Democrats and Republicans, and Democrats and Republicans are not evenly geographically distributed across the Commonwealth following county and municipal lines."
Because of that, some in Republican circles have said they feel the maps would need to be gerrymandered to favor Democrats if the goal were to create a map that would result in a 50-50 split of the state's 18 U.S. House seats.
Samuel Wang, a Princeton University neuroscientist who runs the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, said it's clear that mapmakers attempted to exploit the state's natural clustering of Democrats into urban areas. He noted that the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas would have a concentrated handful of districts, while the map splits areas surrounding Reading and Harrisburg.
"Where you make the splits is where the art of the gerrymander lies," Wang said. "They've chosen to encircle Philadelphia, and that gives a very packed Democratic district, and they've chosen to draw a line down some of these other population centers."
Even without using election results or other data on partisanship, Wang said, other demographic variables such as population density and ethnicity can be used to predict partisan vote.
"And of course," he wrote in an email, "these are seasoned politicians who know their state very well!"
Staffers for Scarnati and Turzai said Saturday that congressional candidates and even incumbents were minor factors in comparison with criteria the Supreme Court outlined: keeping districts compact, minimizing the number of counties and towns split, and the contiguity of the districts.
"It is easy to zoom in on an individual line and nitpick," Neal Lesher, a spokesman for Turzai, said in an email.
One of their primary concerns, Lesher said, was making sure all of the districts met strict guidelines for population. "Just like squeezing a balloon, if you move one line it impacts the whole map and someone else is unhappy," he said.
It is unclear whether the state Supreme Court, which has a Democratic majority, would accept a submission by two Republican leaders without a full vote by the legislature — even if Wolf were to approve it.
The court said it would draw a map itself if lawmakers and the governor can't agree on one by Feb. 15.
Republican leaders, in a court filing late Friday, struck a defiant tone, saying they retained the right to file appeals or to "pass a new plan to replace any plan the court adopts."