Next year’s contest for the House of Representatives may well have been decided on Tuesday when New York’s highest court wiped out congressional maps considered favorable to Republicans and ordered redrawn districts—a process likely to end with the state legislature enacting a plan far more favorable to Democrats. Under a new map, Democrats could flip as many as six seats currently help by Republicans, enough to seize control of the closely divided House. The New York Republicans who rode a state-level red wave to Congress in 2022 are about to watch their districts shift dramatically to the left. The big question is whether New York Democrats will squander this opportunity with the kind of mismanagement and infighting that led them to disaster last year.
Tuesday’s decision was the latest episode in the years-long saga over redistricting in New York. It began when residents voted for a constitutional amendment in 2014 that gave primary responsibility over the process to an Independent Redistricting Commission, or IRC. The 2014 amendment, however, divided the IRC equally between Democrats and Republicans, and the commission deadlocked on a plan after the 2020 census. So the legislature stepped in with its own congressional map—which the New York Court of Appeals struck down as an unlawful partisan gerrymander by a 4–3 vote in 2022. (The Court of Appeals is the state’s top court.) The conservative-leaning majority, appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and led by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, directed an outside mapmaker to redraw the plans. The mapmaker’s submission was heavily influenced by analyses from experts who specialized in GOP-friendly redistricting. It gave Republicans an edge while pushing two top Democrats into the same district, forcing them to compete against each other. As a result, Republicans seized five or six additional seats (though one was vacated when the House expelled indicted Rep. George Santos).
In the meantime, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul flipped the court to a new liberal majority. DiFiore stepped down amidst misconduct allegations, and Hochul elevated Rowan Wilson, a liberal associate judge, to lead the court as chief. The governor also appointed the left-leaning Caitlin Halligan to fill Wilson’s old seat. Democrats then filed a new lawsuit arguing that the IRC must produce new maps instead of relying on the court-ordered plans drawn by the outside mapmaker. (Halligan recused from this new litigation, which gave Wilson the power to replace her with a liberal from a lower court, Dianne Renwick.)
On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals sided with the Democratic challengers by a 4–3 vote, throwing out the existing maps. Chief Judge Wilson, who dissented from the 2022 decision, wrote the majority opinion, which focused on a narrow procedural question: Should the old plan remain in effect for the rest of the decade? Wilson said no, citing the state constitution’s command that a court may impose a map only when it is “required” as “a remedy for a violation of law.” The current map, he wrote, may have been “required” when the Court of Appeals imposed it last year, in the run-up to November. But it is no longer “required” today, because the IRC has ample time to draw a new plan and submit it to the legislature. So, he concluded, the commission must draft a revised map.
Of course, the IRC remains evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and its warring factions are unlikely to agree on a substitute map. If they don’t agree, the legislature may, under state law, simply enact its own map. It may also reject and redraw any map that the IRC submits if it somehow gets its act together. Either way, the Democratic-controlled legislature will have the last word. And Wilson has already strongly suggested that he and his colleagues have no interest in shooting down a democratically enacted map, as the court did in 2022. To the contrary, the chief judge has previously written that the state constitution’s restriction on partisan gerrymandering applies only to the most extreme, flagrant partisan gerrymanders imaginable. As long as the legislature’s map is not wildly biased against Republicans to the point of absurdity, the court will presumably allow it to stand. And Democrats do not have to draw an especially biased map in order to win back the seats they lost in 2022.
This victory for state Democrats comes in spite, not because, of the actions of the top Democratic officials in the state. Specifically, Gov. Hochul and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries went to great lengths to prevent this day from coming, even though Jeffries stands to benefit greatly from it in his campaign to become speaker. When the seat opened up after DiFiore’s departure last year, Hochul and Jeffries teamed up to try to force through conservative judge Hector LaSalle as chief judge, despite a dicey record that made him less likely than Wilson to vote for new maps, and widespread opposition from Democratic groups large and small.
The organizations that sank LaSalle’s nomination, and made Wilson’s decision possible, are two of the groups New York Democrats most love to hate: New York’s socialists and progressives—the DSA, the Working Families Party—along with a number of unions and pro-choice groups that led the charge, in defiance of Hochul and company. Indeed, when Senate Democrats in New York voted down LaSalle, the governor threatened to sue them, before finally turning to Wilson as a second choice. The rare alliance between those organizations, who haven’t often teamed up in the past, did the work that led to Tuesday’s decision, which may well flip the balance in the House. Democrats will also benefit from new majority-Black districts in Alabama and possibly other states thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision reaffirming the Voting Rights Act. And the New York victory will offset losses in North Carolina, where a newly Republican state Supreme Court has enabled an extreme GOP congressional gerrymander.
How will Democrats repay those left-aligned groups who made this happen? Well, in one race, they may try to shank them. As the Working Families Party quickly noted after the decision, the IRC’s current chair is Ken Jenkins, who serves as deputy to George Latimer—the conservative, AIPAC-aligned Westchester County Executive running to take out progressive incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman in the Democratic primary. Jenkins will therefore take the first stab at drawing new lines for the district that Latimer is running in. And Latimer has already made public comments saying that his ability to beat Bowman will be decided based on those lines. There’s a glaring conflict of interest here, since Jenkins could try to gift Latimer a more favorable, whiter district—a scandal, even if the IRC’s maps never come to fruition.
Winning cures all, and the structural advantage that Democrats are expecting to get from this redrawn map is also going to be juiced by $45 million in spending that national Dems have already pledged to those aforementioned six races, as well as the infrastructure and hiring they’ve committed to the state. Does it seem insane that Democrats are investing so heavily in New York, a state where registered Democratic voters outnumber registered Republicans more than two-to-one? Well, that’s how profoundly New York Democrats have mismanaged their advantage. From the top, they refuse all measure of accountability. In New York’s 3rd congressional district, the one George Santos just got evicted from, the party has closed ranks around Tom Suozzi, who ran against Hochul from the right and sports a bad record on the all-important issue of abortion. He has continued to embrace No Labels, despite the group becoming entirely non grata in every other corner of the House Democratic caucus, as a result of its efforts to run a third party candidate nationally and undermine President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign.
Tuesday’s news will paper over all of this in-fighting for a time. Republicans, who unceremoniously dumped their fundraising maestro Kevin McCarthy in October, may decide it’s not even worth spending money to defend some of these seats, including the upcoming special election to replace Santos. But the problems for New York Democrats remain serious and unresolved.
For now, though, Democrats will celebrate. After years of seeing Republicans carve up red states for indefensible, structural advantages, Democrats are inching closer to a favorable playing field with some hardball tactics of their own.