WASHINGTON -- After contentious elections, high-profile court battles and grand political choreography in statehouses across the country, the task of redrawing congressional boundaries appears likely to yield a surprising outcome: A draw, or close to it.
So much for the political wisdom that Republicans were poised to clean up in the once-a-decade undertaking aimed at adjusting the lines to accommodate population shifts and growth. Republicans control the mapping process in four times as many congressional districts as Democrats, thanks in part to the GOP surge in statehouses in 2010.
The score card kept by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report shows the two parties are even in their quest to redraw maps to their advantage, although Democrats estimate they could gain as many as six new favorable districts. They need a 25-seat gain to take back control of the House.
The estimates are little surprise to the experts, who like to say redistricting is a game of margins: small changes -- a few thousand new partisan voters here and there -- that, when multiplied across the country, slowly make it easier for one party to win the majority.
By working those margins, Republicans are on track to defend their turf, despite the growth in typically Democratic constituencies such as Latinos.
"We're not going to see a seismic shift from redistricting -- and that's good news for Republicans, who are pretty happy with the status quo," said David Wasserman, an analyst for the Cook Political Report.
Of the battles that remain, much of the debate will involve representation of minority voters, who have tended to support Democrats. Florida has yet to settle on a map. New York's divided legislature is still haggling over who will feel the pain from the state's loss of two seats. Texas, which will receive four new seats thanks to a boom in its Latino population, is awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling over approval of its maps under the federal Voting Rights Act. Lawsuits are pending in many other states.
Still, the major contours taking shape reflect a familiar trend -- safer incumbents as a result of fewer competitive districts. Some argue the result also encourages more polarization in Congress, as many redrawn districts include fewer swing voters.
In at least 20 districts across the country, Republicans argue that they have strengthened their incumbents by adding GOP voters to the territory. New maps also have pushed many Democratic incumbents into more challenging races.
Yet Democrats have also had their redistricting victories.
In California, a citizen's panel rather than politicians drew political boundaries for the first time under a new state law. Although it's unclear whether the ratio of Democrats to Republicans will change, the new maps are expected to produce about 12 competitive races that could bring at least nine new faces to Congress. Three Democrats and three Republicans -- including the dean of the delegation, Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis -- announced they would retire when their terms expire.
In Illinois, where Democrats control the legislature and the governor's office, Republicans could see their ranks fall from 11 members of the delegation to seven. The future of that state's pack of GOP freshmen -- who dubbed themselves the "Boys from Illinois" -- remains uncertain.
The flip side of Illinois is North Carolina, where the Republican-controlled statehouse is attempting to boost GOP incumbents and hurt Democrats by moving likely supporters out of their districts. The North Carolina map, which Democrats say is gerrymandered, is being challenged in court.
But one party's gerrymander is often the other's smart politics. Shoring up incumbents saves time and money for the national party, freeing up resources to spend in contested races.
"The redistricting process has shrunken the playing field of competitive seats and put House Democrats at an even steeper disadvantage," said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Democrats argue the GOP's success in this strategy is not so clear-cut. By shoring up some members, particularly freshmen in districts carried by President Obama, Republicans have exposed others.
Kathleen Hennessey reports for the Tribune Co. Washington Bureau.