Why McHugh’s District Is an Opportunity, and Possibly a Headache, for the Democrats

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On the surface, John Mchugh’s decision to abandon his 23rd District House seat to serve as Barack Obama’s Army secretary offers Democrats a promising opportunity to push the state’s Republican contingent one step closer to extinction.

Less than three years ago, nine of New York’s 29 districts were represented by Republicans. That number was reduced to six by the 2006 elections, and then to three after last November’s vote—where it remains, thanks to Democrat Scott Murphy’s surprising success at retaining Kirsten Gillibrand’s 20th District seat earlier this year.

Now, with McHugh’s exit, Democrats can pare the G.O.P. ranks to two. Yes, they face an uphill fight in the 23rd, where Republican outnumber Democrats by more than 60,000, but maybe not that uphill: Barack Obama won it by five points last fall. Victory in the forthcoming special election is hardly a remote prospect.

But taking the 23rd could come with unintended consequences for Democrats, with the decennial reapportionment and redistricting process fast approaching. The 2010 midterm elections, when the special-election winner will presumably seek a full term in the 23rd, will be the last time that the 29-district scheme adopted by the legislature in 2002 is used. Depending on the results of the federal census, New York will then lose either one or two House seats.

And this is where things are starting to look tricky for Democrats: Every Republican district they win over now is one less potential target for redistricting. The possibility is quickly emerging that Democrats, come 2012, may simply have too much turf to protect—and that they might then have to give up one (or more) of their own.

The current map, a compromise enacted by legislators after federal judges threatened to impose their own messy solution in 2002, essentially split the state into two sections: a Republican-friendly collection of upstate districts and a Democratic-friendly array of downstate districts. The aim, for both parties, was to insulate incumbents and to lock in the basic partisan balance of the delegation for the next decade.

But national politics interfered, with moderate, Republican-leaning upstate voters abandoning the G.O.P. as George W. Bush’s presidency collapsed. Those voters lined up Democrats in 2006 and 2008 (and 2009), allowing Gillibrand, Murphy, Mike Arcuri, Dan Maffei, and Eric Massa to claim “Republican-friendly” districts. Now, Democrats must protect these new incumbents, but how they’ll manage this in the face of a loss of one or two seats through redistricting is tough to see.

Winning the 23rd would complicate things further. Just a few years ago, the sprawling district bordered three Republican districts (the 25th, the 24th, and the 20th) and one Democratic district (the 21st). This would have made for an inviting redistricting target for Democrats; merge two of the G.O.P. districts, fortify the Democratic one, and maybe even add some Democratic areas to the other Republican district to make it more competitive.

But if they win the 23rd, the district will be bordered entirely by Democratic districts—many of them still with heavy Republican registration advantages. So if, for instance, the new 23rd District Democratic incumbent sought to use redistricting to shed Republican strongholds from his or her district, there would be nowhere to put these areas without substantially weakening a potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbent. Conversely, with a Republican incumbent in the 23rd, the surrounding Democratic congressmen might be able to use the district as a dumping ground for unwanted Republican areas from theirs.

This is particularly significant because Democrats could have more sway over the redistricting process in 2012 than they’ve ever had in modern times. Typically, the map-drawing commission has been deadlocked between the two parties, with the Assembly Speaker and the Senate president each naming two members and the minority leaders of both chambers each naming one. This has resulted in compromise—maps that have forced the parties to share the pain of reapportionment.

But now, for the first time in decades, Democrats control the Senate, which would give them a 4-2 advantage on the panel. And, especially if Andrew Cuomo emerges as the party’s gubernatorial candidate next year, they could have veto power as well. In effect, then, if Democrats can hold the State Senate next year and the governorship, they could be in position to impose their own map on Republicans.

In theory, they could simply target the two remaining House Republicans, Peter King and Chris Lee, and go for an all-Democratic delegation. (This assumes a special election win in the 23rd.) But there would be significant long-term risk in this, since it would do nothing to fortify Democratic incumbents in districts like the 23rd, which, in less Democratic-friendly years, could easily fall to the G.O.P.—just as they fell to Democrats when Bush’s popularity tanked. Having a few “dumping ground” Republican districts upstate would actually help the cause of locking in the remaining Democratic incumbents for the next decade.

It’s all conjecture now, of course. Republicans could end up winning the special election in the 23rd, which could be a blessing in disguise for Democrats from the surrounding districts. Or the Democrats could win with State Senator Darrel Aubertine—which would then jeopardize his Senate seat, thus giving Republicans a better shot at winning back that chamber and, by extension, gaining equal standing in the redistricting process. Or maybe a Republican state senator will win, only to have his or her Senate seat won by a Democrat, thus preserving the Democratic Senate majority—and endangering the new Republican congressman in ‘12. Who knows?

But if they do win the special, Democrats might find, oddly, that that’s when things really get complicated.

Why McHugh’s District Is an Opportunity, and Possibly a Headache, for the Democrats