ALBANY — When the Democratic majorities of the Senate and Assembly vote next week on new election district maps for congressional districts, they will have a chance to play a role in the national fight for control of Congress this fall.
The new election district maps must be made public online over the weekend in order to be voted on next week as scheduled by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. Their maps will have to account for a loss of one congressional seat under federal law, which allocates seats based on states’ populations.
While the arcane subject of redistricting may draw little interest from the public, leaders from both major parties know it is the biggest single key to legislative power and longevity statewide.
This year, redistricting provides an opportunity for the Democrats who control the state Senate and Assembly to redraw congressional elections and eliminate a Republican incumbent in Congress. Democrats will also likely shape election district lines to include more Democratic voters in current Republican-dominated congressional districts, which could help flip GOP seats.
Much is at stake.
The House of Representatives has 222 Democrats and 212 Republicans, which is the narrowest margin in decades.
The U.S. Senate is split 50-50 between the two parties, because two independent members caucus with Democrats. The split has required Vice President Kamala Harris, as president of the Senate, to break ties.
Those close margins mean a dozen House and Senate races nationwide could determine the party in power of either or both houses.
"It’s the whole ballgame," said Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College. "Every congressional seat is valuable and could determine control of the chamber … and it looks like the Republicans have successfully gerrymandered enough districts (in other states) to have a majority, so every seat Democrats can pick up is extremely valuable."
Republicans like their chances based on current issues such as the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation under Democratic President Joe Biden, as well as historic trends. Presidents often lose congressional support in midterm elections.
Democrats are countering with the traditional all-out effort every 10 years, in which the party in power tries to cement its electoral edge in districts and political power statewide for the next decade.
"Both sides engage in the same kind of behavior," said veteran political strategist Hank Sheinkop. "It’s about partisanship and power."
The likely result this year, as in several past redistricting efforts, is that the maps end up in federal courts, Sheinkopf said.
Democrats running the Senate and Assembly now have control of redistricting because an independent redistricting commission fell into partisan gridlock and failed to agree on new maps by this week’s deadline.
Many of the battles in the public meetings focused on congressional lines. Democrats sought to erode Republican voters in the Staten Island/southern Brooklyn district of Rep. Nicole Malliotakis. Republicans sought to bring more Long Island Republican communities into Queens-based districts while Democrats sought to bring more Queens Democrats into Long Island districts.