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Judge recommends congressional map favored by GOP lawmakers

February 7, 2022 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court will consider a new map of congressional districts recommended Monday by a lower court judge who picked a proposal favored by top Republican lawmakers but opposed by Democrats in the presidential battleground state.

The map recommended by Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough, a Republican, came from a pool of more than a dozen submitted to the court as part of the once-a-decade exercise of adjusting for demographic shifts.

It sides with Republicans on prominent areas of disagreement between partisans.

The map passed the Republican-controlled Legislature last month without support from a single Democratic lawmaker. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed it.

Democrats view it as a partisan map, producing 10 Republican seats, and maybe up to 12, in a state where Pennsylvania’s delegation is currently split evenly, nine Democrats and nine Republicans, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 4 million to 3.4 million.

A political scientist who testified on the plan for Republicans projected that it had nine Democratic-leaning districts and eight GOP-leaning districts based on statewide election results from 2012-20.

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An analysis by FiveThirtyEight, a website that focuses on opinion poll analysis, politics and other topics, projects the map keeps nine Republican-leaning seats, even though the last-decade’s population gains were largely in Democratic-majority counties.

The map shrinks Democratic-leaning districts from six to five and keeps three toss-up districts, as the state grapples with the loss of a seat because of relatively stagnant population growth.

The question of redrawing the state’s congressional districts has gone to the courts after Wolf and the Republican-controlled Legislature deadlocked.

McCullough — who ran unsuccessfully for state Supreme Court last year touting herself on her website as “the ONLY Judge in America to order the 2020 Presidential Election results not be certified ” and “the only judge running for the PA Supreme Court to be praised by President Trump” — got the case first.

She held three days of hearings on proposals and had a choice of maps submitted by Republican lawmakers, Wolf, Democratic lawmakers, partisans on both sides and good-government groups.

Her selection is strictly a recommendation on which the state Supreme Court — with a 5-2 Democratic majority — will make the ultimate decision. In 1992, when a similar process played out over six weeks, the high court went along with the lower court judge’s recommendation.

The high court will hold hearings on Feb. 18.

McCullough, in her 222-page report, wrote that she chose the proposal from Republican lawmakers because it lacked “any cognizable legal or constitutional objection” by Wolf and suggested that it deserves extra weight because it passed the Legislature.

It is “functionally tantamount to the voice and will of the people,” she wrote.

In his veto message last month, Wolf argued the Republicans’ proposed map “fails the test of fundamental fairness.”

The process of redrawing congressional districts is running up against the three-week period beginning Feb. 15 when candidates can circulate petitions to get on May 17 primary election ballots.

To deal with that, McCullough suggested keeping the primary date intact, but delaying the petition period by two weeks, to March 1, and compressing it to two weeks until March 15.

The map picked by McCullough creates seven districts with solid Republican registration advantages. Five seats would have a strong Democratic registration advantage.

The registration is closer in five seats, but the Republican map generally gives those swing districts a higher percentage of Republican voters than do current boundaries.

Three of those solidly Republican districts split up the growing Harrisburg region, spreading its Democratic voters and making the area less competitive for a Democrat.

It keeps Pittsburgh in one district, packing its Democratic voters together, but strengthens Republican registration in a suburban Pittsburgh district now represented by three-term Democrat Conor Lamb, who is instead running for U.S. Senate.

It ensures that no Republican incumbent is in the same district as another GOP incumbent.

But it gives Republicans a matchup they wanted in northeastern Pennsylvania, pitting second-term Republican Dan Meuser against fifth-term Democrat Matt Cartwright in a Republican-leaning district.

Meanwhile, Cartwright’s district, as well as Democratic-held seats based in Chester County and Allentown, would get a higher percentage of Republican voters. That change would shift the Chester County-based district from Democratic-leaning to a toss-up. A Republican-held swing seat based in Bucks County would remain a toss-up.

In some maps, Democrats had proposed splitting Pittsburgh to create two Democratic-leaning seats and keeping bluer areas around Harrisburg in one district with York or Lancaster to keep registration closer.

In addition, Democrats’ maps had preferred to pair two Republican incumbents together into one district, arguing that Republican-represented areas were predominantly the places where population growth was stagnant.

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Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter.