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Supreme Court rulings scramble Congress seats in South for rising GOP stars

A series of Supreme Court rulings gave Democrats a needed jolt to shore up their ranks in the South heading into the pivotal 2024 election. But those rulings also set up a game of musical chairs that could end the political careers of a couple of young Republicans considered future party leaders.

By upholding a section of the Voting Rights Act, the court has essentially forced the legislatures in Alabama and Louisiana to redraw congressional districts in a manner to give Black voters more power, beyond just the single district in each state currently held by Reps. Troy A. Carter (D-La.) and Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.).

That means at least one lawmaker in each state has to give up safe Republican terrain and get thrust into a district that is, at minimum, highly competitive with a massive amount of new Black constituents who will probably vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic nominee.

These Republicans will have to devote a large amount of time to calling in favors from their allies in the state capitols drawing up the new congressional maps, hoping that when the redistricting music stops they will end up sitting in a safe GOP seat.

“That all comes down to one thing,” said Trey Nix, a Democratic consultant from Alabama with a focus on Southern races. “Who does the legislature hate the most?”

Democrats and Republicans agree that the most powerful figures in these delegations are the safest, both because geographically their districts are far enough away from the area where the new districts will be drawn and because of their long-standing ties to their states’ power brokers.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), who represents the area south and east of New Orleans, will not be affected. Nor will Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-Ala.), a powerful member of the House Appropriations Committee, nor will Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Those Republicans who are most in jeopardy include some of the party’s newer power players who have attracted attention from party leaders and shown potential for bigger roles down the road.

In Louisiana, that includes Rep. Garret Graves, who has become a close ally of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and oversees meetings of the GOP’s five ideological caucuses, and Rep. Julia Letlow, a leader on conservative education positions and serving on the Appropriations Committee.

In Alabama, Reps. Jerry L. Carl and Barry Moore — both first elected in 2020 — have contiguous districts just beneath the state’s “Black Belt” — named for its fertile black soil that is also an area where many of the state’s Black voters live — where the new district is most likely to be drawn.

In Louisiana, where a third of residents are Black, Carter is the lone Black representative among the state’s six seats. Alabama, where a quarter of residents are Black, has just Sewell as a Black representative among its six House members.

Insiders in both parties have cautioned that rather than just carving out another safe Democratic district, Republicans in Alabama might just try to draw up their state’s seven districts in a fashion whereby Black voters would turn a few of those seats into competitive battlegrounds but not guaranteeing a winner for either party.

They note that Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, in his concurring opinion, left open the possibility that having competitive seats where Black voters have clout, but not a definite outcome, would meet his own test for adhering to the voting law.

Such a scenario would actually give Republicans the chance to sweep every seat in the state.

“Don’t count out 7-0,” Alex Schriver, a GOP consultant from Alabama, said.

Of course, such a risky approach would also open up the possibility of losing two or three seats in a bad election year, the type of instability party leaders in Washington usually try to avoid when drawing up new maps.

Democrats expect the more likely scenario of gaining two seats from these two states. That would help offset what is likely to come in the pending redistricting in North Carolina, which has a 7-7 split among its delegation to the House.

Nix, a political adviser to Gov. Roy Cooper (D-N.C.), said he expects the state legislature there to draw new maps that are likely to flip three seats to Republicans — a move that the newly conservative-leaning state Supreme Court would probably uphold. But the potential gains in Louisiana and Alabama could help offset those losses.

“We at least are going to mitigate some of North Carolina’s losses,” he said.

In Louisiana, the most likely outcome might mean breaking up the highly gerrymandered 2nd Congressional District, which since 2012 has run from the lowest-income wards of New Orleans up into Baton Rouge, connecting the state’s two Black population centers about 80 miles apart.

It’s an incredibly safe Democratic seat. Carter won his 2022 campaign with more than 77 percent of the vote.

That district will probably remain anchored around Carter’s home base in New Orleans, with some slight modifications to add voters nearby, and then the question legislators have to answer is where to place many of those Black voters in Baton Rouge.

Graves, whose district wraps around the state’s capital city, won reelection last year with more than 80 percent of the vote. If he had to incorporate the nearly 225,000 people from that city into his district, losing other safe conservative areas, it would be brutal for his political future.

Now in his fifth term, Graves, 51, recently took a pass on running for governor in the state’s November election, putting his near-term focus on his work in Congress.

He became a key McCarthy ally during the marathon voting sessions that it took to elect him speaker in January, serving as an emissary to hard-right Republicans who were blocking McCarthy’s ascension. He was then rewarded with oversight of the meetings of the five caucuses, which turned into writing the GOP’s debt-and-budget proposal and serving as the speaker’s lead negotiator in talks with White House advisers.

Letlow, 42, sits due north of Baton Rouge, an expansive district straddling the state’s eastern border with Mississippi. The mother of two young children, she is the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Louisiana.

Her late husband, Luke Letlow, a veteran GOP aide, won the district in the 2020 general election but contracted the coronavirus just weeks before being sworn into Congress and shortly before he was eligible for the vaccine.

After his death, local leaders encouraged Julia Letlow to run, and she easily won a special election in 2021. She defeated her nearest opponent by 52 percentage points in her 2022 reelection bid, and she’s the state’s lone House member on the Appropriations Committee.

One scenario, according to some Republicans, is that legislators would essentially throw Letlow and Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) into a district across the northern tier and open up room for Graves to hold a seat outside the capital and leave a Democratic seat anchored in Baton Rouge.

But Johnson, 51, in his fourth term, has shot up into McCarthy’s elected leadership team and seems poised for higher posts.

In Alabama, advocates who pushed the case to the Supreme Court appeared before a legislative body to propose creating a district with 50 percent Black voters across the middle of the state, in addition to Sewell’s district.

“The map that we’re presenting to this body is one that features two opportunity districts,” Evan Milligan, the lead plaintiff, testified Wednesday at the State House in Montgomery.

That map, if approved, would likely send Carl and Moore into a primary against each other. Carl, a more mainstream conservative, just joined the Appropriations Committee, and Moore has staked out far-right positions with the Freedom Caucus. He voted against giving the Congressional Gold Medal to the Capitol Police and D.C. police for their heroics on Jan. 6 and has proposed designating an AR-15 style rifle as the “National Gun of the United States.”

This new district would crawl along the border with Florida and Mississippi, and Moore might be favored as someone whose fiery nature would appeal to the state’s most conservative voters.

That’s why the court rulings weren’t just a blow to GOP chances of holding the majority next November, but also a blow to the more establishment-friendly wing of McCarthy’s caucus that he needs to govern Congress.

Even if Republicans hold the majority into 2025, McCarthy needs more influence over his rowdy caucus to wield any power. And that can happen if he somehow makes sure that state legislators, with their own interests at stake, help protect allies like Carl, Graves and Letlow.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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