PITTSBURGH - Pennsylvania already figured prominently in Democrats' attempt to win back control of the U.S. House of Representatives, with their sights set on several of the state's congressional districts, including three of the four in Berks County.
A decision this week in a long-running redistricting case is set to give those efforts a boost.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene after the state's high court declared unconstitutional Pennsylvania's existing House map, which had been heavily gerrymandered by Republicans. A reshuffled map is expected to make several districts friendlier for Democratic candidates in November.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the leaders of the Republican-run Legislature face a court-ordered Friday deadline to find a compromise approach to drawing the new boundaries.
"It's still early in the process... but I'm very encouraged by what this decision could mean for the people of Pennsylvania," said U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, who heads Democrats' House campaign arm.
Before the redistricting decision, Democrats had zeroed in on six Pennsylvania congressional districts out of 91 they are targeting nationwide. Only California and New York have more top targets for House Democrats.
The scramble to redraw districts for this year's elections in Pennsylvania is a preview of redistricting dominoes in several states that could alter the balance on Capitol Hill in the coming years.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule later this year on partisan gerrymandering cases in Wisconsin and Maryland. A decision against maps that are overtly political, overwhelmingly favoring one party over another, ultimately could force congressional districts to be redrawn elsewhere, including battleground states such as Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia.
Unlike in Pennsylvania, potential changes in those states are unlikely to affect elections this year.
The hustle to redraw the state's congressional maps has left candidates such as Democrat Chrissy Houlahan wondering what district they'll ultimately represent if they win. The former Naval officer wants to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello in the state's 6th Congressional District.
That district, which is made up of parts of Berks, Chester, Lebanon, and Montgomery counties, appears on a map roughly shaped as a boomerang.
Costello won 57 percent of the vote in 2016, but Democrat Hillary Clinton outpaced President Donald Trump in the district.
"It's going to be strange for me the next few weeks," Houlahan said of waiting on new boundaries. But she called the ruling "a win for democracy" and said it won't affect her approach, focusing on health care, jobs and education.
The new maps will not affect a March 13 special election in southwest Pennsylvania, where state Rep. Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb are vying to replace Republican Tim Murphy, who resigned amid a sex scandal. But the winner in the 18th Congressional District could still find himself in a redesigned district running for re-election in November.
"You could have a new congressman drawn out of his district completely," said Republican strategist Bob Branstetter, who is advising Saccone.
The current boundaries resulted from Republicans who controlled the Legislature and governor's office, breaking decades of geographic precedent when drawing boundaries after the 2010 census. They shifted whole counties and cities into different districts and produced contorted boundaries in an effort to protect a Republican advantage in the congressional delegation.
Some of the districts were so oddly shaped to benefit Republicans that they drew derisive descriptions: Goofy Kicking Donald Duck; a malnourished hammerhead shark winding through six counties; the state of Florida, with a longer panhandle.
The maps had the desired effect. Republicans hold a 13-5 advantage in congressional seats in a state where Democrats have 800,000 more registered voters and hold all but one statewide elected office. In 2016, President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by less than 1 percentage point out of more than 6 million votes cast.
Competition also has suffered under the Republican-drawn maps. With the three previous House maps after the Census in 1980, 1990 and 2000, between two and six Pennsylvania congressional seats changed party hands during a given decade. Since the 2012 elections, when the new boundaries went into effect, none has.
An Associated Press analysis published last June found Pennsylvania Republicans won about three more congressional seats in the 2016 election than would have been expected based on the party's overall share of the vote. That ranked second nationally behind Texas and slightly ahead North Carolina and Michigan. Overall, the AP analysis found Republicans won as many as 22 additional U.S. House seats over what would have been expected based on the average congressional vote share across the country.
Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Val DiGiorgio insists the GOP's advantage is a natural result of Democrats' concentration in cities. He said a more even map would require another form of gerrymandering by carving up Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
At the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a project of former Attorney General Eric Holder, executive director Kelly Ward rejected that. She said there are enough Democrats beyond the major cities to draw maps leading to competitive elections "so that the swing nature of the state is reflected" in Washington.
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