The reaction to a plan approved by a Kansas Senate committee to redraw the boundaries for the state’s four congressional districts is a vivid reminder of why redistricting often is referred to as the Kansas Legislature’s most political task.
The map approved by the Senate Reapportionment Committee last week draws clean, regional lines and splits only three counties. The 3rd District includes all of Johnson and Wyandotte counties and a small portion of Leavenworth County. The 2nd District wraps around the 3rd to include all of the eastern tier of counties. The 4th District includes 16 south-central counties with Wichita at its hub. Because of continued population declines in western Kansas, the “big 1st” District is even bigger covering all of western and north central Kansas.
The shifts that have gotten the most attention in the map have involved the homes of the state’s largest universities. Under the proposed map, Manhattan and Riley County would move from the 2nd District into the 1st, and Douglas County, which was split between the 2nd and 3rd districts, would move entirely into the 2nd.
Manhattan had wanted to stay in the 2nd District, but that would be difficult to achieve without drawing a far messier map. One plan that would have kept Manhattan in the 2nd wrapped the 1st District across the northern counties in the state and dipped down to include Wyandotte County.
The plan forwarded to the whole Senate last week almost certainly isn’t the final map, and there may be reasonable alternatives that could keep Manhattan in the 2nd, but one that splits the Kansas City metropolitan counties of Johnson and Wyandotte and puts a totally urban county like Wyandotte into the largely rural 1st District doesn’t make a lot of sense.
From the constituents’ standpoint, how congressional lines are drawn makes some difference but not as much as some may think. Ten years ago, Lawrence residents were dismayed when the city was divided between the 2nd and 3rd districts, but having two members of Congress paying at least some attention to Lawrence and Kansas University didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing. Reuniting Douglas County in the 2nd District also makes sense and respects the county as a “community of interest” that should remain together.
However, from a political standpoint, putting all of Douglas County in the 2nd District apparently is a very big deal. Even though the Senate committee’s map would only shift the political makeup in the 2nd District by a couple of percentage points, the plan was decried by the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party as “a coldly calculated attempt to create a Democratic 2nd Congressional District to the detriment of the dean of our congressional delegation.” The “dean” refers to U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who currently represents the 2nd District.
The chairman of the Kansas Chamber Political Action Committee used the map to broadly attack certain Republican senators, saying, “This map hurts Republicans and helps President Obama’s agenda. Just the latest example of why we need a new state Senate.” The chairman of the Senate Reapportionment Committee, Sen. Tim Owens of Overland Park, is one of several moderate Republican senators targeted for ouster by the Kansas Chamber’s PAC, which already has contributed $1,000 to support Owens’ Republican primary opponent.
As we said, it’s the most political thing the Legislature does. How these lines are drawn obviously is important to political interests in the state, but in a state the size of Kansas, the things that divide the state are less important than the things that should unite it. It’s understandable that incumbents want to protect their districts, but no matter how the final lines are drawn, all of our members of Congress should be working together for the benefit of the entire state.