Maryland Democratic lawmakers face a decision when they redraw the state’s congressional districts next month: just how difficult to make life for U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, the lone Maryland Republican in Washington?
There’s been speculation for months that Democrats in Annapolis, who hold veto-proof majorities that put them in the driver’s seat for redistricting, might stack the deck against Harris in a reconfigured electoral map and set their party up for an 8-to-0 sweep of Maryland’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Harris has sounded the alarm about the possibility in fundraising pitches to supporters.
A batch of draft maps the General Assembly’s redistricting commission released last week suggests Democrats could do just that — though not nearly as aggressively as some pundits figured. Two of the four proposed maps take aim at Harris’ Eastern Shore-based district by crossing it over the Bay Bridge and picking up more Democratic neighborhoods in Anne Arundel County. They would turn the district from one that former Republican President Donald Trump carried by wide margins in 2016 and 2020 to one that Democratic President Joe Biden would’ve won last year.
Harris, an anesthesiologist from Cockeysville, has been a thorn in the side of many liberal Maryland Democrats more accustomed to the Larry Hogan flavor of Republicanism. A conservative firebrand whose political rise came by mounting attacks against more centrist fellow Republicans, Harris is a member of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus and a full-throated supporter of Trump.
The prospect of being shut out on the congressional map has galled many Republicans, even those who don’t favor Harris’s brand of right-wing politics, who view it as a naked power grab in a state where about a third of voters reliably support the GOP. But it’s been urged by some Democratic partisans eager for any advantage in next year’s midterm elections — with Democrats defending a narrow majority in the U.S. House. They see tilting the map in blue states like Maryland as a fair counter to Republican-controlled gerrymandering in places like North Carolina and Texas.
“There’s no question that Democrats would love Andy Harris to walk the plank. They see him as an insurrectionist cheerleader and an enemy of democracy,” said David Wasserman, a senior editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and an analyst of congressional elections and redistricting. “And yet the surprise to me is that they didn’t propose an even more Democratic 1st District.”
The most aggressive partisan redrawing among the four proposals would create a district that Biden could have carried by about 8 points. While that would certainly give Democrats the long-term advantage there, Wasserman said Harris could potentially survive reelection even there in 2022 because it looks to be a strong year for Republicans.
But state lawmakers won’t simply pick one of the four proposed maps. They’ll gather Dec. 6 for a special legislative session to reconfigure the congressional district boundaries. At that point, they could easily double the Democratic advantage in the 1st District and doom Harris by adding liberal portions of Howard County, Wasserman said.
Wasserman said Democrats could easily capture all eight of Maryland’s congressional seats by shifting more Republican voters to the districts held by Democratic U.S. Reps. Kweisi Mfume and John Sarbanes of Baltimore, which Democrats routinely win by massive margins.
Harris did not respond to messages The Baltimore Sun sent to his congressional office and his political campaign. But Harris sounded confident Wednesday about his chances in an interview with Fox News, saying that the draft maps are “still quite gerrymandered, but not quite as much as the current districts.” He said he believed one Republican would still be elected under any of the four of the maps.
All four maps would move Harris’ Cockeysville home out of the 1st District and into Mfume’s 7th District. Members of Congress need not live in their districts, though they are required to live in the state.
The General Assembly’s Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission will take comment on the proposed maps at a statewide virtual hearing Monday from 6 to 8 p.m.
Gov. Larry Hogan hasn’t discussed the lawmakers’ proposals for the 1st District specifically. But he’s offered general criticism, saying all four maps “would continue the extreme gerrymandering that has made a mockery of our electoral majority system for decades.”
Hogan is backing a map drawn by a commission that he appointed. He has pledged to submit that draft to lawmakers, even though Democrats in Annapolis have enough votes to disregard his proposals. The Hogan-backed commission drew the 1st District to include all Eastern Shore counties, plus Harford County and the northern, rural section of Baltimore County. That map that would likely keep the congressional seat safely in Republican hands.
No matter how lines are drawn, there’s a legal necessity to add some Western Shore communities to the Eastern Shore-based 1st Congressional District since there simply aren’t enough people on the largely rural Maryland portion of the peninsula to fill a congressional district, which should contain roughly 773,000 people. Electoral maps must be redrawn once every decade to account for population changes between each census.
There’s precedent for using the Bay Bridge to link the Eastern Shore district with neighborhoods across the Chesapeake Bay. After the 2000 census, the 1st District was drawn to include the Anne Arundel neighborhoods of Arnold, Broadneck, Cape St. Claire, Gambrills, Millersville, Pasadena and Severna Park.
For two decades, the district was represented by Wayne Gilchrest, a moderate Republican. Harris effectively ended Gilchrist’s political career in the 2008 Republican primary with a right-wing challenge, but then lost to Democrat Frank Kratovil.
Harris ran again in 2010 — when the district still included the Anne Arundel neighborhoods — and defeated Kratovil in a rematch to claim the seat. He has coasted to reelection every two years since.
The current map, adopted before the 2012 election, swapped the Anne Arundel communities for more of Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties, effectively packing in more conservative and Republican voters.
Dirk Haire, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said his party is watching the redistricting process closely and is poised to mount a legal challenge if the congressional district map is skewed to benefit Democrats, something the governor has threatened, as well. Any legal challenge could be settled by the Maryland Court of Appeals, which has a majority of its seven judges appointed by Hogan.
A 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case involving a challenge of Maryland’s current maps held that federal courts have no role in policing gerrymandering for political reasons and that it is up to Congress to pass a law restricting the practice, which has not happened.
Still, the current draft maps could have been much worse for Republicans given the political realities of the state, Haire acknowledged.
“In a state where you’ve got 2 million Democrats and 1 million Republicans, there are mathematical ways to draw Democratic majorities if you just completely disregard geographic and political boundaries,” he said.
Haire thinks Harris still has a chance to win, even in the scenarios where the district includes a significant number of Democratic voters in Anne Arundel.
A group of more than 20 Black leaders, mostly from the Eastern Shore, wrote Thursday to legislative leaders to ask for a return to “a competitive, balanced” electorate in the congressional district.
“For the past decade, our district has been represented by Congressman Andy Harris, who has repeatedly stoked racial tensions, embraced conspiracy theories, and espoused a hateful, dangerous ideology, which negatively impacts our communities,” the group wrote under the letterhead of the Talbot County NAACP.
The leaders did not endorse any specific configuration, but said a more competitive map would allow voters “to use our voices and our votes to render a verdict on Congressman Harris’s tenure in Congress.”
Democratic candidates hoping to replace Harris in Congress took a measured tone about the possibility of running in a district more favorable to their party.
“We’re going to win this seat no matter what the district looks like,” said Democrat Heather Mizeur, a former state delegate and gubernatorial candidate who lives on a Kent County farm, in a statement.
Mizeur didn’t offer a preference for any of the maps, but said she supports “a balanced district” that would more likely elect a representative who would listen to multiple viewpoints and work with both parties.
The other Democratic candidate who has filed to run, retired foreign service and U.S. Agency for International Development official Dave Harden, also said he’s the best choice regardless of how the district lines are drawn. Harden lives on a Carroll County farm and claims Eastern Shore roots going back generations.
“I’m the strongest candidate running, without regard to the [proposed maps] that are out there,” Harden said in an interview. He said Mizeur is too liberal and Harris too conservative for the mostly rural district.
“Where I grew up, folks are common-sense people,” he said. “They don’t want crazy.”
Harry Basehart, a professor emeritus of political science at Salisbury University, said he thinks most Eastern Shore voters would support whichever map would help their party win the seat in Congress.
“The Republican Party on the Shore certainly likes Andy Harris and whatever lines help him get reelected, I think they’re fine with,” said Basehart, who calls himself an active Democrat. “I think the Democrats, of course, would like to have a part of the Western Shore that’s more Democratic.”
If Democratic leaders want to put more Democratic voters in the 1st District in hopes of toppling Harris, then other Democratic congressmen will lose friendly voters from their districts, Basehart noted. He wonders if that’s a trade-off they’re willing to make.
“The crucial question is … Will Western Shore Democrats think it’s important enough to get rid of Andy Harris that they’re willing to put some residents of Anne Arundel County in the district?” he said.