‘Decimation’ of competitive seats could unleash climate primaries

By Adam Aton | 02/11/2022 06:16 AM EST

Most House Democrats will face no serious Republican competition. That gives climate activists more leeway to pressure and primary centrists.

Jessica Cisneros.

Democratic House candidate Jessica Cisneros campaigns with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in 2019. Cisneros is trying to unseat Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in a Texas primary race. Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

Democrats have fared better than expected in this year’s redrawing of House districts — but that’s not necessarily good news for all the party’s incumbents.

Both parties are redrawing congressional maps to eliminate competitive districts, with some analyses suggesting the number of swing seats could be cut in half.

The same gerrymandering that insulates lawmakers from general election challengers could also empower each party’s most extreme elements, political scientists say. The biggest hurdle to winning most House seats could be surviving the primary.


That means Democrats, who already emerged from the Trump era with a more muscular left wing, could see this decade bring even more clout to environmental groups and other progressive activists waging primary campaigns in the name of more aggressive climate action, some analysts say.

And for Republicans, there could be even less room for lawmakers to break with the climate denial of President Trump, whose endorsement remains the most coveted asset in a GOP primary.

“We’ve seen the real decimation of the already small number of competitive districts that had existed in Congress,” said Richard Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University who studies elections and polarization.

It’s not only gerrymandering; voters are also sorting themselves into increasingly homogenous red and blue areas.

In 2012, after the last round of remapping, 66 House districts went for a presidential candidate by 5 percentage points or less, according to Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report. By the end of the decade, that number had fallen to 51.

“In other words, voter self-sorting explains a lot of the competitive decline,” Wasserman wrote on Twitter. “But the 2022 redistricting cycle is rapidly compounding the decline. There may only be 30-35 seats in that range by the time all is said and done. So the House’s pro-GOP bias may be reduced or eliminated, but the House is also on pace to be more anti-competitive than ever.”

One effect is a redefinition of “electability.”

Instead of appealing to voters in the middle, Pildes said, safe-seat politicians worry about getting outflanked from challengers in their own party. That includes incumbents with long, established records.

“Because they’re all concerned about reelection,” he said. “And the threat they face in reelection in a safe seat is only from a primary.”

“My concern,” Pildes added, “is that with 90-some percent [House] members elected from safe seats — maybe 95 percent — that’s going to harden polarization. It’s going to make it even harder to find any sort of space for bipartisan legislation.”

Others expect the impact on climate politics to be more muted, if only because the vast majority of Democrats have already coalesced around a common climate agenda.

“We know that primaries tend to produce candidates that are more ideologically to one side or the other. And that does impact climate and energy policy, given that the issue has become so polarized between the two parties,” said Craig Auster, vice president of political affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

But, he added, that dynamic has taken hold of Congress already.

“You can’t really get much worse on the Republican side. And we’re pretty strong on the Democratic side,” he said. “I don’t think you can get much more polarized at the congressional level between the two parties on these issues.”

The first test could come in Texas, whose March 1 primary is the first of the midterm season.

The Lone Star State’s new congressional map was drawn to include only a single highly competitive district, according to FiveThirtyEight. The old map had six.

Progressives hope that will give them more room to play offense against lawmakers they see as too moderate.

In the Laredo-area’s 28th District, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) is facing a rematch against Jessica Cisneros, an immigration lawyer who unsuccessfully challenged him in 2020. Cuellar defeated Cisneros by fewer than 3,000 votes.

Since then, the district has been redrawn to include more Democratic voters from San Antonio and surrounding Bexar County. President Biden would’ve carried the new district with 57 percent of the vote total, according to the San Antonio Express-News, rather than the 51.5 percent he carried under the old map.

Progressives are investing heavily in the race, along with the nearby 35th District stretching between San Antonio and Austin. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has scheduled a rally Saturday with Cisneros and Greg Casar, a candidate for the 35th. The Sunrise Movement has mobilized its members to volunteer for both campaigns.

Cuellar, on the other hand, is among the most moderate Democrats in the House. He’s a booster of the oil industry and one of its top recipients of campaign donations — which he explains by pointing to the sector’s importance for his district.

He was one of the centrist lawmakers who advocated holding back Biden’s $1.7 trillion climate and social spending bill until Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill — a sequencing that some progressives blame for the death of the so-called “Build Back Better Act.”

Republicans see a chance at flipping the seat if Cisneros wins the primary, with seven GOP candidates lining up to compete.

But climate activists argue that the same dynamics that could boost Cisneros over Cuellar would also help her in the general election. And they say it’s not just the district’s partisan tilt.

“We’re definitely looking at the political landscape of the district,” said William Joel Bravo, the Sunrise Movement’s electoral politics director.

But, he added, what makes a candidate like Cisneros successful is her promise to improve people’s lives in the face of dangerous climate change. It’s more about connecting with people’s lived experience, he said, than exploiting political maps written by their adversaries.

“The climate crisis is playing a larger role in these contests — specifically the primary contests — because people are living every day, more and more, through life-changing climate disasters,” Bravo said.

“Young people are coming to the realization that a [congressional] majority isn’t enough,” he added. “We need quality representatives that will speak to our lived experience — and representatives that we can hold accountable.”