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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

There's no such thing as an off year for U.S. elections now

Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat who represents a

Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat who represents a border district in Texas, has said he will not seek reelection in 2022. Credit: Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

Last November's ballots brought explosive national change. But don’t dismiss 2021 as merely an "off year" in the national election cycle. The Republican Party lives on even if former President Donald Trump turns out to have met his political demise. Changes are brewing away from the polls in the perpetual tug-of-war between the major parties.

Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), who represents a border district — one vexed by the recent migrant surge — and serves as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, announced last week he will not seek reelection next year.

Texas is about to add congressional seats because of population gains documented in the 2020 census. And because the governor's office and the state's legislature are controlled by Republicans, they'll get to draw new congressional district lines to the GOP's advantage. Vela's seat, in an area of south Texas where Republicans have been making electoral gains, stands to earn close attention from the professional map manipulators.

Vela has been discussed for an appointment in the Biden administration. But serving out his term before that occurs ensures that Vela's seat won't turn over in a special election. For the same reason, President Joe Biden has also avoided choosing Democratic senators for his Cabinet. Creating early vacancies could help endanger the party's thin majority.

Texas is just one state where GOP operatives can take advantage of population shifts and cash in on their very strong chance to win back the House in 2022. The five states with the biggest population gains are Texas, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia.

As a result, Texas is widely expected to pick up three seats, and Florida two. Those are the biggest Republican states. By contrast, the massive Democratic-dominated states of California, New York and Illinois are likely to lose one or two seats each because of fewer residents.

That means that after the 2022 midterms, Republicans, some with extreme anti-Democratic views, will gain new opportunities to block or sabotage Biden's initiatives. For now, leading Democrats have an extra motive to move quickly to enact major budget, tax and legislative priorities while they still hold the top power bases in Washington.

Four years ago, the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice issued a report charging that "extreme partisan bias" in congressional maps accounted for at least 16 Republican seats in Congress. Currently the House has 219 Democrats, 211 Republicans and five vacancies, which shows how easily the 2022 election could swing the majority.

The census-based process of reapportionment and redistricting faces special problems this time out, stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. Last month officials announced they'll deliver necessary data to all states by Sept. 30, rather than by Wednesday as originally planned.

To adjust to the delay, some states are reportedly considering postponement of their 2022 primaries or turning to other population estimates to begin redrawing. One tradition should hold, however: State court battles are expected to arise.