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New district maps could help Democrats in the upcoming election

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Republican Party controls almost two-thirds of state legislatures in this country. That is due in part to a successful GOP strategy of redistricting launched years ago. But in this midterm election, some new maps in some battleground states may change the odds of who's in power. Here's NPR's Laura Benshoff.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz has a lot on her plate. She owns a restaurant, serves on her local city council...

JOHANNY CEPEDA-FREYTIZ: And I'm running to become the next state representative of the 129th District.

BENSHOFF: The 129th Pennsylvania House District is about 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It includes part of Reading, a small city that is majority Democrat and Latino. But it also covers some of the surrounding county, which is whiter and more Republican. Cepeda-Freytiz grew up between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic. She says she went into politics to help her community.

CEPEDA-FREYTIZ: Being in a city that's predominately Latino, where a lot of people speak more Spanish than English, for years we weren't really represented or served.

BENSHOFF: When Pennsylvania adopted a new legislative map, it redrew the lines around the 129th. That's one major reason Cepeda-Freytiz decided to run.

CEPEDA-FREYTIZ: It did a complete shift, allowing the area to be 52% Democrats.

BENSHOFF: Every 10 years, states redraw district lines based on the new census numbers. Sam Wang, director of the Gerrymandering Project at Princeton University, says in most states, the party in power runs the redistricting process.

SAM WANG: It's this endless feedback where the state legislature plays a hand in drawing its own lines, runs for office in those lines and then can stay in office.

BENSHOFF: Both parties do this, but there is a growing backlash against such partisan gerrymandering. In Pennsylvania, the most recent mapmaking commission was chaired by an outside expert. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the Commonwealth, but the GOP has run the state legislature for a decade. The new map still favors Republicans but less heavily than before, according to Wang. He says other states decided to change their mapmaking practice entirely.

WANG: Some states have stepped up and, through citizen initiative, reformed their process. And that's the case in places like Michigan and Virginia.

BENSHOFF: That makes Democrats hopeful. Jessica Post is president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

JESSICA POST: We'll see the first fair state Senate map in about 40 years in Michigan this election cycle. And so that gives us a shot to flip the Michigan State Senate.

BENSHOFF: But that's ambitious during a midterm year when Republicans would normally be expected to make gains.

ADAM KINCAID: There's a big difference between flipping chambers and flipping seats.

BENSHOFF: Adam Kincaid is with the National Republican Redistricting Trust. While Democrats are gunning to take control of chambers in Pennsylvania and Michigan, he's not overly worried.

KINCAID: Nationally, the climate is good for the GOP. You know, at the same time, the commissions in a few states didn't do Republicans any favors.

BENSHOFF: Kincaid says new maps could also cause Democrats to lose seats in their strongholds. For example, in the New York State Senate, a judge there threw out political maps as unfairly biased towards Democrats. Drawing district lines is so contentious because these maps create a kind of political destiny. For example, let's go back to that Pennsylvania race we heard about at the top. I never heard back from the Republican candidate. But Democrat Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz is feeling good about her odds because of the new map.

CEPEDA-FREYTIZ: This will be the first time, when I win, that it'll be a Democratic seat.

BENSHOFF: When I win. It's not if I win. It's when I win.

CEPEDA-FREYTIZ: I have to speak - it's when I win. I have to speak it into existence, right?

BENSHOFF: It helps that the district now leans in her favor.

Laura Benshoff, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.
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