Capital Beat: Republican led redistricting helped set table for GOP majority in N.H. Senate

Monitor staff
Monday, December 05, 2016

Democrats predicted major gains in the state Senate ahead of Election Day, and even held a reception in October for the “next Senate president” Jeff Woodburn.

So when results came in and Republicans held onto a 14-10 majority in the chamber, Democrats cast blame on redistricting. It turns out the claim has some merit, a Monitor analysis has found.

Democrats would have likely seized control of the state Senate this year had an older version of the district map been in place. The Monitor recalculated the 2016 Senate results using 2008 districts – and in that scenario, the results would have been reversed in five senate races. Using the 2008 districts, Democrats would have picked up four additional seats, and Republicans would have picked up one. Under that scenario, Democrats would control the senate with 13 seats to the Republicans’ 11.

It’s not a perfect estimate, and removes the candidates entirely from the equation. But the exercise does show how district boundaries can influence election outcomes. The current map was drawn by a Republican-controlled Legislature in 2012, while the courts helped craft the previous one.

In the most recent election, Republican state Senate candidates all together drew just 5,500 more votes than their Democratic competitors – less than one percentage point – but the GOP picked up 60 percent of the chamber’s 24 seats.

“The [districts] are drawn purposefully to provide advantage to Republicans,” Democratic Sen. Donna Soucy said last week on NHPR during a segment focused on the party’s state-level losses.

GOP operatives call the claim “sour grapes.”

“All fall long, all [the Democrats] would talk to anybody about was how they were going to take over the majority, and that didn’t materialize,” said Rich Killion, a Republican strategist who advised the state Senate Majority PAC. “They have been trying to come up with excuses.”

New Hampshire’s House, Senate and Executive Council districts are redrawn once every decade to reflect population changes captured by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Worries over a party’s ability to draw boundaries in its favor, known as gerrymandering, have led some advocates to propose handing over the entire redistricting process to an independent commission, whose members aren’t elected officials and have nothing to gain from the process.

Nashua Rep. David Cote, a Democrat, has already filed draft legislation this year to create such a commission.

“Redistricting is at the heart of a lot of partisan issues in the state,” said Rep. Karen Ebel, a New London Democrat who has signed onto the proposal. “I think it would be much better if you had an independent body to be able to make those sorts of decisions.

But if history is any guide, the proposal may not have much luck. The Republican-led House and Senate effectively killed two bills earlier this year that would have set up an independent body to oversee redistricting.

Republican Rep. William Gannon called the proposal unconstitutional and said it was independent “in name only,” given that House members would appoint commission members.

“This House may not delegate its duties,” said Gannon, of Sandown, on the House floor in February.

The next round of redistricting is set to begin after the 2020 Census. And unless something changes, the party in control will have the task of carving up the state into new districts.

The Legislature doesn’t have total control – like most bills, the governor has final say. Democrat John Lynch signed the Republican Senate’s most recent redistricting plan into law, after it passed the chamber on a party line vote.

A decade earlier, however, Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed the GOP-crafted plan. The courts had to step in to draw up the districts.

The differences between the 2008 and 2016 Senate maps are stark. To do the analysis, the Monitor input 2016 town election results over the 2008 district map.

The reconstruction shows that two Seacoast Democrats, Tom Sherman and Alexis Simpson, would have defeated the Republican winners under the old district map. When the state was redistricted in 2012, Democratic-leaning areas Portsmouth and Newmarket were pulled out of their districts and lumped into District 21, now considered a stronghold for the left. Martha Fuller Clark defeated her Republican challenger there by more than 10,000 votes.

District 4, which now encompasses Dover and Somersworth, and is considered a liberal seat, was in 2008 a Lakes Region district that would have produced a Republican win.

Six districts remain the same, including both Manchester districts held by Democrats and three along the Southern tier controlled by Republicans. District 16, where Scott McGilvray flipped the only seat for Democrats, is the same now as it was in 2008.

Others are completely new. Neither Republican Harold French nor Democrat Andrew Hosmer could have faced-off in District 7 this year had the 2008 map been in place because the old district doesn’t include either of their hometowns.

Many candidates would have won under the 2016 and 2008 maps. Woodburn, Senate Minority Leader, would have kept his seat in both scenarios, as would have Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, Concord Democrat Dan Feltes and Bedford Republican Andy Sanborn.

The map switch would have changed some local outcomes, however. A 2008 map would have favored Democrat John Garvey over Republican winner Ruth Ward. Similarly, an older district drawing would have given a leg up to Nashua Democrat Peggy Gilmour over Republican incumbent and 2016 winner Kevin Avard.

But it’s not all a tale of what could have been – some outcomes wouldn’t have budged. French’s margin over Hosmer in the 2008 district would increase from just 17 votes to a couple thousand.

Here’s the spreadsheet showing the comparison between the old districts and the new:

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)