Change may be coming to northern U.S. House district
Since the new Nevada census numbers were delivered for use in legislative redistricting, it has been popular among political junkies to say that the northern U.S. House district will likely remain strongly Republican. But running those numbers makes it clear that it’s unlikely the district will be anywhere near as conservative as it was.
For 117 years, Nevada had a single House seat. In 1981, it got a second. The Nevada Legislature apportioned those two seats into one Clark County district and a second district that included the rest of the state—the small counties, Washoe County, and a sliver of Clark—which was usually known as the northern district.
The third House seat did not take another 117 years. Just 20 years later, in 2001, Nevada got that third seat. Southern Nevada had grown so much by then, it was still possible to put two seats into Clark County while keeping the northern district, also known as Congressional District 2, more or less as it was—the small counties, Washoe County, and a small portion of Clark.
The fourth seat came even faster. It took just 10 years. But this time, the huge northern district will not survive.
Nevada’s population in the 2010 census is 2,700,551. That means each of the four U.S. House districts must have about 675,138 Nevadans in them. The courts permit a little latitude, but not much.
Clark County now has 1,951,269 residents. Washoe has 421,407 and the small counties have 272,601.
Legislators are expected to create the new House district mostly in Clark County. But there are not enough people in Clark to create a full additional district and still keep something resembling the northern district of the past 30 years. Those 1,951,269 people in Clark only equate to about 2.9 districts. Instead of the northern district dipping into Clark County for enough residents to make a whole district this time, Clark County will be reaching deep into the northern district for enough people and counties to create the third Clark district. And it promises to sharply change the dynamics of House district politics.
“This is the number of votes that I defeated Harry Reid by in Congressional District 2,” said Republican Sharron Angle in announcing her candidacy for the northern House seat. She displayed a sign reading “19,677.” (The correct number, as Mark Robison of the Reno Gazette-Journal reported last week, is 19,230.)
She went on, “And I feel that is the reason why I have the best chance of winning … no matter what the configurations of the congressional district might be.”
Perhaps she should have paid more attention to the possible configurations. Right now, it appears that thousands of Angle’s voters are going to be removed from the district and attached to Clark County while leaving Washoe County intact within the district. In order to complete the Clark County districts, several counties will likely be attached to the three southern House districts, or possibly just to one of them.
This will elevate the importance of Washoe, whose voters will become a larger percentage of the northern district than they are now and whose Republicans are more moderate than those in the small counties. Washoe is Angle’s home county—and she lost it to Reid. She will lose some of the areas she won while keeping an area she lost.
This scenario assumes that Washoe County remains intact while some of the small county areas are attached to southern House districts. Right now, both Democrats and Republicans are leaning toward that kind of configuration because there is something in it for both of them.
For the GOP, the new northern district would be less likely to nominate a favorite of the party base who is unelectable in the general election. “We can’t go through that kind of thing again,” said one Republican state legislator who spoke on background. And it will make Clark County a little friendlier to GOP candidates.
For Democrats, it will make the northern district more competitive. In the 30 years the district has existed, it has never elected a Democrat. More than once the party poured resources into what was a safe GOP district.
One Assembly Democrat said, “You know, we all have an interest in districts that don’t foster these polarizing races. That’s not a partisan thing.”
There is another way the legislators could go. They could split up Washoe County and attach part of it to Clark, along with land in between.
It’s not likely, but reapportionment chair David Parks did not rule it out: “I think it’s too soon to say.” The pitfalls are the reaction in Washoe and the fact that distant reaches and non-contiguous districts are more vulnerable to court challenge.
In 1981, something similar was considered. Some legislators wanted to split the state vertically, dividing both Clark County and Washoe County and putting part of both into each of the two House districts. That would have put the population base in both districts in Clark. Gov. Robert List said he would veto that configuration, and the idea died.
“There’s all different ways you can divide the districts, but we’re not at that point yet,” Parks said.
There have been a number of predictions from reporters that redistricting is going to be the most divisive and angry issue faced by the 2011 legislature. So far, that has not happened. “I’m not seeing that there’s tension,” Parks said. “There’s certainly always the potential for tension.” Another legislator said, “I think you guys [reporters] are trying to stir something up.”
In fact, the principal potential source of tension is not between Republicans and Democrats in the legislature but between Democrats in the legislature and U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley in the U.S. House. If Berkley—a Clark County Democrat—stays in her House seat instead of running for the U.S. Senate, Democrats in the legislature will have to undertake a task they do not relish. They will have to protect Berkley’s interests in reconfiguring her House district in Clark County. That will involve removing more than a hundred thousand voters from her district. “I don’t want to deal with all those calls from D.C.,” said one Democrat.
Ten years ago (redistricting happens after each census), the only source of contention was over whether to expand the size of the legislature to preserve solely small-county districts. But it was not something that created hard feelings that extended much beyond the end of the 2001 legislature.
The last time that kind of thing happened was in 1991, when Senate Democrats rammed through a reapportionment plan for state senate seats without giving the public any notice.
In 2001, the legislature hired an outside firm to aid in creating districts. This time it’s an expense the state can ill afford. “We have some good software, and we know that we have the ability to put together some good districts,” Parks said.