Conservative justice gave Democrats a path back to power

Published 10:36 am Friday, March 23, 2018

If Democrats do manage to retake the House this fall, they might have to send a thank-you card to the chambers of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

On Monday, Alito, a Republican, who was appointed to the court by President George W. Bush, shot down a request by GOP legislative leaders in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to stay a new congressional map set to take effect for the spring primary and this November’s general election.

Alito’s terse, one-sentence order denying the request — a ‘Bye, Felicia,’ of jurisprudence — was expected by most of the Keystone State’s political-watchers. But the legal battle leading to his decision was hard-fought, nonetheless.

Despite Pennsylvania’s demonstrated Democratic leanings (Democratic voters command a significant registration advantage), a congressional map in place since 2011, drawn by Republicans, gave the GOP a clear lead.

Until recently, Republicans held 13 of the state’s 18 congressional seats, while Democrats held just five. 

In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court tossed the map, ruling that it violated the Pennsylvania constitution’s guarantee of “free and equal” elections because it marginalized Democratic vote counts through extreme gerrymandering. The court imposed its own map, after Republicans and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf failed to reach an accord on a compromise version.

The court-ordered map will give Democrats opportunities for pick-ups in three seats ringing Philadelphia, one around Allentown being vacated by moderate GOP U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, and the suburban Pittsburgh seat narrowly won by former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb (assuming that victory holds after an expected court challenge by Republicans).

Political analyst Charlie Cook recently moved another strongly Republican seat, the new 17th District (the former 12th District seat now held by conservative U.S. Rep Keith Rothfus) to “toss-up” status. That’s the seat where Lamb is expected to run when the current 18th District blinks out of existence.

In all, Democrats need to flip about 24 seats to retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives this fall. The Pennsylvania map gives them a path to at least five.

Energized by wins last year in Virginia and Alabama, Democrats are expecting big things in 2018. Writing for Roll Call, veteran analyst Stuart Rothenberg projected a 30- to 45-seat pickup for Democrats in November, well above the floor needed to retake the House.

“Seven and a half months before the midterm elections, the combination of attitudinal and behavioral evidence leads to a single conclusion: The Democrats are very likely to win control of the House in November,” Rothenberg wrote, adding that “Republican and Democratic campaign strategists also agree that an electoral wave has already formed.”

One important caveat?

As grim as things look for Trump and as dismal as his polling numbers are, seven months remain before Election Day and plenty can — and likely will — change between now and then. Keep in mind, pundits (this one included) were similarly confident about Clinton’s chances, only to end up with egg on their faces on election night. Still, the bottom line is that Democrats have two, really good reasons to be encouraged as they head into primary season.

First, Lamb’s victory deep in the heart of Trumplandia was driven by an appeal to traditionally Democratic working-class voters who crossed to Trump in 2016; an embrace of tariffs, and moderate-for-Democrats stances on guns and abortion.

It gives the party a playbook it can click and drag into other competitive seats across the country (and there are plenty of them).

Second, the Pennsylvania case gives voter reform groups a potential roadmap to challenge gerrymandering in their own states. Yes, there are some variables (like a majority-Democrat Supreme Court, with one member who was openly hostile to gerrymandering during his campaign for the appellate bench.).

And finally, Pennsylvania will redraw both its legislative and congressional maps in 2021, using 2020 Census data. The state is projected to lose one congressional seat in that remapping.

So that means, as CNN’s Chris Cillizza and others pointed out, the Supreme Court ruling has implications, in Pennsylvania, and in other states, that extend well past Monday’s events.

JOHN L. MICEK, an award-winning political journalist, is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at