A judge’s decision to side with Gov. Susana Martinez in redistricting of state House seats is certainly a win for Republicans, but it’s arguably more significant as a loss for Democrats.
The Democratic judge, James A. Hall, ruled Tuesday in favor of Martinez’s plan, saying it’s better because it protects Native American-majority districts while changing districts less than other plans.
The critical quote from Hall’s ruling about the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s plan, which Martinez vetoed and Hall rejected, states that it “contains significant population deviations between districts which are not justified by historically significant state policy or unique features.”
Hall wrote that Martinez’s plan, on the other hand, “properly places the highest priority on population equality and compliance with the Voting Rights Act as required by law.”
Republicans gained significant ground in the state House in 2010. The current makeup is 36 Democrats, 33 Republicans and one independent, making it the closest Republicans have been to political balance in the House in more than eight decades.
The Legislature’s redistricting plan would have shifted the advantage back toward Democrats. Martinez proposed a plan that shifts things more to the right, but not as much as the legislative plan shifted things in the other direction.
So Hall backed Martinez’s plan. Imagine if Democrats had proposed a plan that shifted the balance in their direction less than Martinez’s did toward the GOP.
Some districts gain Rs, some gain Ds, some gain independents
Democrats were quick to express outrage over Hall’s ruling.
“We are disappointed that the court is siding with the governor as she rigs districts to protect Republican incumbents and ignores several key factors including incredible growth in Las Cruces,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said in a news release sent out by the state Democratic Party. The Dems promised to seek legal avenues to fight the ruling.
But the governor’s plan doesn’t “rig” districts to protect all Republican incumbents. It certainly improves things for some: The makeup of the district represented by Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, for example, shifts under the plan Hall approved from 52 percent Democratic and 31 percent Republican to 50-34.
But the district of Los Lunas Republican David Chavez shifts from 47 percent Democratic to 49 percent and from 35 percent Republican to 32. The district of Rep. David Doyle, R-Albuquerque, shifts from 43 percent Democratic to 44, and from 39 percent Republican to 38.
Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Mimi Stewart’s Albuquerque-area district shifts from 47 percent Democratic to 48, and from 30 percent Republican to 26, with independents gaining 2 percentage points.
That points to something interesting I saw as I looked at key districts: Independents gained because their numbers have increased in the last decade. In Southern New Mexico, for example, the district of the House’s only independent, Andy Nuñez from Hatch, goes from 50 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican and 16 percent independent to 48-30-19. The district of Rep. Terry McMillan, R-Las Cruces, goes from 43-36-18 to 42-35-20. The district of Rep. Rick Little, R-Las Cruces, goes from 41-35-21 to 41-32-25.
Unfamiliar territory for Democrats
To be clear, Republicans should be happy. In the 2004 election, President Bush won 36 of the House districts that existed at the time. Under the plan Hall approved, Bush would have won 39.
But what the plan really means is a more competitive House, with fewer safe incumbents from both parties.
That’s what Martinez sought.
“This plan does not favor one party over the other and instead ensures competitive districts that will allow New Mexicans to determine who represents them in the House,” Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell was quoted by The Associated Press as saying.
Maybe Martinez truly believes in more competitive districts and fewer safe incumbents, regardless of party. Maybe she was simply smarter than Democrats and sought to gerrymander districts less than they did.
Either way, the Democrats lost big on this one. Assuming that Hall’s ruling stands, the N.M. House will be more evenly split over the next decade, and fewer incumbents from both parties will be safe.
And that is unfamiliar territory for Democrats who have safely controlled the House for more than eight decades.