How Republicans could tank Iowa maps without full chamber votes

The Iowa House and Senate will convene on October 5 to consider the first redistricting plan submitted by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA).

When the maps were published on September 16, I agreed with the conventional wisdom that the GOP-controlled legislature would reject the proposal, because it creates a Democratic-leaning Congressional district in eastern Iowa and keeps Dallas County with Polk County in the third district. However, as the special session approaches, Republican sources increasingly expect the Iowa House to approve the plan–if it comes to a floor vote.

That’s why the Iowa Senate seems poised to reject the proposal, possibly without letting it reach the floor in either chamber.

IN THEORY, MAPS COULD PASS WITH SMALL FRACTION OF GOP VOTES

Ordinary bills would never come to the House or Senate floor without broad support within the majority caucus, because majority leaders control the calendar. But redistricting is a different animal, because of Iowa’s unusual, mostly nonpartisan process.

Top Democrats have been on record for weeks supporting the LSA’s first plan for Congressional and legislative districts. Most recently, Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said during a September 30 media availability,

There are some things for Republicans to like about these maps, and there are some things for Democrats to like – but most importantly – these are nonpartisan maps drawn without interference from politicians or political influence. That’s why I’ll be voting to approve these maps on October 5, and why my Republican colleagues should as well.

Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst explained her position on the October 1 edition of the Iowa PBS program “Iowa Press.”

[Erin] Murphy: Representative Konfrst, when those maps were published you were very quick to say that you were ready to approve of them and vote yes on that first proposal. What was it about them that you liked them and were able to make that pledge so quickly?

Konfrst: They were fair. They were drawn using Iowa’s fair redistricting process. I said I would vote for them before I even saw it because a map that is drawn using Iowa’s gold standard redistricting process is a fair map and that is one that is good for Iowa. It is the most important thing is to not consider politics, but to consider fairness when we’re making this really important once a decade decision.

A handful of Democrats may vote against the maps or be unable to attend the special session, but the vast majority of the Democratic senators and representatives will vote for the plan if they have the chance.

Republicans hold a 32-18 majority in the Senate and a 59-40 majority in the House, where one seat is vacant pending an October 12 special election. So in theory, a redistricting plan could pass with only about a quarter of GOP lawmakers in each chamber voting for it.

SIGNS POINT TO PASSAGE IN THE IOWA HOUSE

My recent conversations with GOP sources indicate that while House members are divided on the LSA’s proposal, enough Republicans would join Democrats to surpass the 51 votes needed. Other observers have reached the same conclusion.

GOP State Representative Jon Jacobsen predicted the map would get through the House during the October 2 broadcast of “Now You’ve Heard it All,” the weekly radio show he co-hosts on one of Boomer Network’s Omaha stations. During the same program, on which I also appeared, Jacob Hall described the vote as a “done deal” in the lower chamber. As publisher of the conservative website The Iowa Standard, Hall regularly communicates with some Republican lawmakers.

Conservative opponents of the plan have launched a pressure campaign against House Speaker Pat Grassley on the Breitbart website. In a September 29 post by Michael Patrick Leahy, an unnamed “senior GOP strategist who works on numerous Iowa campaigns” (who sounds a lot like David Kochel) said, “It’s going to be hard for Pat Grassley to run for governor if his biggest accomplishment is helping Nancy Pelosi keep the majority in the House of Representatives.” Kochel has been a top adviser to U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson, whose political career could be cut short if this map becomes law.

An October 2 post by Leahy had the attention-grabbing headline, “Iowa Speaker ‘Pelosi Pat’ Grassley Gives No Indication of Whether He Supports or Opposes Pro-Democrat Redistricting.” That piece quoted a “senior GOP aide” as saying, “Some Republicans are starting to call Speaker Grassley ‘Pelosi Pat’ as he continues to consider this pro-Pelosi map without dismissing it.” The premise of the critique was odd, since Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver also has not publicly dismissed the LSA plan, and didn’t respond to Breitbart’s inquiries about the matter.

Since GOP strategists aren’t trashing Whitver in blind quotes to right-wing media, I infer that the Senate leader has privately assured national Republicans his caucus will tank this set of maps. We can’t be sure, though. Breitbart cited some state lawmakers as saying they “have no indication from Republican leadership which direction they plan to go on Tuesday.”

One thing we do know: the legislative process will start in the Senate. The Senate State Government Committee has scheduled a “subcommittee of the whole” meeting for 11:00 am on October 5. After considering the redistricting bill, that committee will adjourn.

The House State Government Committee has no meeting scheduled for Tuesday. State Representative Bobby Kaufmann, who chairs the panel, could not be reached by phone and did not respond to emails this weekend seeking clarification. In 2011, the House and Senate State Government committees worked on the redistricting bill concurrently.

FIRST PLAN MAY NOT REACH HOUSE FLOOR

Iowa Code Chapter 42 does not require both chambers to vote on the LSA’s redistricting plan. Rather, it expresses the “intent” for either the Senate or the House to “expeditiously” consider the bill, no less than three days after the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission has submitted its report summarizing public feedback about the plan. (The commission sent lawmakers the report on September 27.) Lawmakers cannot alter the first plan, other than through “purely corrective” amendments like replacing an inaccurate street name.

If the first chamber that considers the redistricting plan approves it, state law expresses the intent for the bill to “expeditiously be brought to a vote in the second house under a similar procedure or rule.” In 2011, both chambers approved the maps by large bipartisan majorities on the same day.

If the first chamber votes down the plan, it’s done. The last time Iowa lawmakers rejected a nonpartisan redistricting proposal was in 2001. The archives on the Iowa legislature’s official website show that the Senate State Government Committee advanced the bill without recommendation. The full Senate then voted it down along party lines. The companion bill in the House never came up for a vote.

I don’t see anything in the code that requires the full Senate to vote on the redistricting plan. Whitver and Senate President Jake Chapman could declare the bill to have failed if it does not advance from the State Government Committee on Tuesday. The House could then gavel in (satisfying the governor’s proclamation setting a special session) and gavel out within minutes.

State law calls on either the House chief clerk or secretary of the Senate to inform LSA about why lawmakers rejected the proposal. (Here’s the resolution submitted in May 2001.) The LSA then has up to 35 days to submit a second set of Congressional and legislative maps to state lawmakers.

WHAT IF THE SENATE APPROVES THE MAP?

Senate Republicans are playing their cards close to the chest. I expect the chamber to vote down the map, not because it leaves Hinson out in the cold, but because it places many GOP incumbents in districts with one another.

However, I can’t rule out the possibility that senators may take this map, rather than looking behind LSA’s curtain number 2. If that happens, expect the House to send the plan to Governor Kim Reynolds by the close of business on Tuesday.

Why would GOP-controlled chambers approve a plan national Republicans hate? Historically, state lawmakers care more about their own maps than what happens to members of Congress. The first plan would give the GOP an excellent chance of maintaining their legislative majorities. And while it does pit many incumbents against each other, that’s inevitable, since the 32 Senate and 59 House Republicans represent mostly rural counties that have lost population since 2010. Any nonpartisan plan would throw many GOP incumbents in the same districts; only the pairings would be different.

Also worth noting: there was no organized conservative effort to criticize the first plan at last month’s public hearings. Written comments submitted to the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission overwhelmingly favored the plan as well. If GOP leaders knew they would reject the maps, a large number of public comments bashing the proposal from different angles would have given them cover.

I’ve long feared Republicans would use their trifecta to vote down the first two nonpartisan maps and amend the third to a gerrymander. But there may not be enough time for the House and Senate to receive and amend a third map by the December 1 deadline the Iowa Supreme Court has set for legislative work on redistricting. It all depends on how long the LSA takes to draft and submit a second plan. I have been unable to determine whether LSA staff have told legislative leaders when they can expect the next redistricting proposal, if the first one fails on October 5.

Final note, since some readers have asked: the redistricting plan must be voted up or down as a single package. Republicans cannot reject the Congressional map while approving the legislative ones.

UPDATE: Senate Majority Leader Whitver told Iowa Public Radio on October 4,

“We’re going to talk through what we want to do as a team, and then we’ll go from there,” Whitver said. “A number of our members have expressed concerns with the map, other members have seen positive aspects of the map. But until we get together Tuesday, we won’t have a final decision.”

Whitver said Republican senators have some concerns about the compactness and population deviation of some of the districts.

Republicans aren’t voting down this map due to concerns about compactness or population deviation. It’s a very fair map on those measures, as Evan Burger showed here. The real concerns are the number of incumbents who would be placed in the same districts and the creation of a Democratic-leaning first Congressional district.

LATER UPDATE: On October 5, the Senate State Government Committee advanced the maps without recommendation, and the Iowa Senate later rejected the plan on a party-line 32 to 18 vote. The House did not take up the redistricting proposal.

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