Redistricting 2011: What if New Jersey loses a seat?

Population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that there is a chance that New Jersey could lose one congressional seat after the 2010 Census. That would mean that the population of each district, which was at 647,258 after the last redistricting, could jump to more than 727,000 people per district.

Between 1962 and 1982, New Jersey had fifteen House seats. The state lost one in 1982 (the old fifth district seat, occupied by Republican Millicent Fenwick, was eliminated; Fenwick was running for the U.S. Senate) and another in 1992 (two Democratic incumbents, Bernard Dwyer and Frank Pallone, were placed in the same district; Dwyer, a 72-year-old six-term Congressman, retired).

When mapmakers drew new districts after the last census, the state’s thirteen Congressmen got together and drew a compromise plan that seemed to protect all incumbents for the decade. But if New Jersey loses a seat, there is little chance of a bi-partisan map that would please — and protect — everyone.

Two districts are not likely to be in jeopardy: the tenth, which elects an African American Congressman, and the thirteenth, which sends a Latino to Congress; both would be protected under the voting rights act.

A retirement could solve the problem — perhaps Republican Jim Saxton, who will be 69 in 2012, or Democrat Bill Pascrell, who will be 75. But both Congressmen steadfastly deny any intention to ever retire. Saxton is in line to chair the House Armed Services Committee if the GOP regains control, and Pascrell, a self-described late bloomer, has just recently achieved considerable clout as a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Insiders suggest that the most vulnerable member of the New Jersey delegation is Republican Michael Ferguson, assuming that he is still in Congress in 2012. He just barely won re-election last year in a bad national environment against Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Stender, who is running again in 2008.

The Ferguson seat could easily be absorbed by neighboring districts: Scott Garrett to the west, Rodney Frelinghuysen to the north, Donald Payne to the east, and Pallone and Rush Holt to the South.

If Republicans have their way, watch for Holt’s seat — held by the GOP from 1979 to 1999 — to be the loser in the game of congressional musical chairs. But since Holt’s part of the state is gaining in population, it’s possible that the seat to be eliminated could belong to Pascrell or fellow Democrat Steve Rothman.

In addition to eliminating a Republican seat, Democrats may want to tinker with another district — perhaps increasing the competitiveness of Frank LoBiondo’s second district seat. Look for Democrats to add Democratic towns to the Ferguson and LoBiondo districts, even if New Jersey doesn’t lose a seat.

And stay tuned as begins drafting different variations of congressional redistricting maps. Redistricting 2011: What if New Jersey loses a seat?