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Analysis: The biggest prize in the Texas redistricting fight isn't a new map

Winning some more seats in the congressional delegation or the Legislature would make Texas Democrats happy, but the real prize at stake in the state's redistricting legislation is federal oversight of the state's Republican mapmakers.

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Federal redistricting litigation is unlikely to ruin the Republican majorities in the Texas House or the state’s congressional delegation. But Republican overreach might give Texas Democrats the next best thing: powerful leverage the next time the political maps are drawn.

The latest round in the seemingly endless legal proceedings over the state’s maps for legislative and congressional districts resumes this morning in San Antonio. Three federal judges are deciding whether the state’s maps are illegal and need some changes. But there are only two major elections left — 2018 and 2020 — before the next Census comes out and new maps are drawn by the state Legislature.

The maps in use in 2020 will elect the lawmakers who draw the maps for the decade that follows. And here’s the thing: Unless there’s a political earthquake, Texas Democrats won’t have a majority in that mapmaking Legislature no matter what a court decides later this year.

What they’d really like to get is a ruling that puts Texas back under federal preclearance, which would require the state to have the permission of either the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal courts before making any changes to election and voting laws. If the courts conclude, after all of the appeals have ended, that the state intentionally discriminated in its mapmaking or, in another ongoing case, in changing its voter ID laws, preclearance is one possible remedy. That could create a serious obstacle to Republicans hoping to cement their current numbers with new laws and maps.

Without a turn in fortune, Texas Democrats have to consider the possibility that a future Republican Legislature will be drawing the maps for the decade of political contests that starts with the 2022 elections.

The Texas GOP’s current advantage is huge: 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats in the Texas House, 25 Republicans and 11 Democrats in the congressional delegation. (The Texas Senate has 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats, and is left out of this conversation since litigation over the Senate’s political districts was settled years ago.)

Those numbers don’t track with how Texans voted in the top races in the last two elections. If Gov. Greg Abbott’s 2014 blowout win over Democrat Wendy Davis were the benchmark, there would be 91 Republicans in the Texas House — four fewer seats than now. If Donald Trump’s narrower Texas victory over Hillary Clinton were used, there would be 82 — 13 fewer seats. That’s true in Congress, too, where the Texas Republican delegation would drop to 22 from 25 using Abbott’s election results, and to 18 from 25 using Trump’s. (The state Senate numbers are closer: Republicans would lose three seats with Trump’s results, one with Abbott’s.)

That’s a quick measure of whether the maps used in Texas elections to choose the people who represent us truly reflect the political composition of the electorate.

They don’t.

The courts, even if they fully side with the Democrats in the current litigation, aren’t playing with state Senate maps at all and are not likely to make big enough changes to flip the GOP’s current 40-vote majority in the Texas House. Democrats hope to gain seats in the 2018 Trump mid-term election even if the current maps remain in place, and they hope to gain a handful more if the legal fight over redistricting goes their way.

For all that, adding 20 seats — enough to erase the majority — would be a reach.

Without a turn in fortune, Democrats have to consider the possibility that a future Republican Legislature will be drawing the maps for the decade of political contests that starts with the 2022 elections.

As the San Antonio judges continue their slog through this decade’s politics, Texas Democrats are hopeful that new lines will offer them some opportunities in next year’s congressional and legislative fights to combine with what they hope will be a voter backlash against Trump.

Preclearance is the real prize, though. Those future Republican legislators who draw the next maps would have someone looking over their shoulders. In the best case for the GOP, that might be a Justice Department in a Republican administration. In the worst, it would be a set of federal judges who might or might not have Republican interests in mind. That prospect — both the possibility of easy appeal and the tempering effect it might have on a partisan majority — is what Democratic lawyers are hoping for.

It’s not about the next two elections. It’s about which party has the upper hand between now and 2031.

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Politics Redistricting Texas congressional delegation Texas House of Representatives Voter ID