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GOP redistricting plan passes in Kansas; court fight looms

Top Republicans pushed their congressional redistricting plan through the GOP-dominated Kansas Legislature without much trouble Wednesday with an expected court battle looming over whether it would go too far in hurting the state's only Democrat in Congress.

The House’s 79-37 vote sends Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly a bill that would split the Kansas City area into two congressional districts and move the liberal northeast Kansas city of Lawrence into a district with far more conservative central and western Kansas communities, some six hours away by car. The Senate approved the measure last week.

Under the new map, Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids would lose some of the neighborhoods in her Kansas City-area 3rd District where her support is strongest. Redistricting is a big issue for both major parties as Republicans seek to regain a U.S. House majority in this year's elections.

Democrats have strongly criticized the plan as partisan gerrymandering, and Kelly has said several times that she wants to keep most of the Kansas City area in a single district.

“It is not a map I would have voted for,” Kelly, a former state senator, said, without committing to a veto.

Republican leaders appeared to have the two-thirds majority necessary to override a Kelly veto in the Senate. But it's not clear whether they have one in the House.

Almost all GOP lawmakers supported the plan, even western Kansas lawmakers from areas that former President Donald Trump carried by more than 80% of the vote. The new lines would make Lawrence, home to the main University of Kansas campus, the district's largest city.

“As long as they have done their calculations correct and I don’t have to deal with having a Democrat represent me in the 1st ever in my lifetime, I think we are fine with it,” said Dustin Roths, the GOP chairman for Ellis County in northwest Kansas.

Republicans said the new lines stemmed from the need for the state's four districts to have as close to the same number of residents as possible. The plan has them all at the ideal number of 734,470.

“The map drawn is fair to all four incumbents, and each of them would have won their district with the election totals of 2020,” said Rep. Steve Huebert, a Wichita-area Republican.

Still, lawmakers in both parties expect a court battle whether the GOP plan becomes law or not. In the past, three federal judges have reviewed the maps and in 2012, the judges were forced to draw the lines because a bitter fight between moderate and conservative Republicans kept anything from passing.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in a 5-4 ruling that whether a map is too unfair to one party is a political issue and not for the federal courts to decide. But some Democrats want to get a congressional map before the Kansas Supreme Court — which typically doesn't review them — for a ruling on whether partisan gerrymandering violates the state constitution.

Northern Wyandotte County in the Kansas City area would be removed from the 3rd District and put in the neighboring 2nd for northeast Kansas. Wyandotte County is among the state's few Democratic strongholds and Davids carried it 2-to-1 in 2020.

Critics of the GOP map argue it's unacceptable because it decreases the number of Black and Hispanic voters in the 3rd, diluting their voting power. Republicans note that the 2nd District would become more diverse, but that hasn't assuaged local residents' frustrations after dozens of them told lawmakers in hearings that the Kansas City area should not be carved up.

“They were gaslighting Wyandotte County residents into thinking that they cared what they thought and wasted people’s time to come out and speak their truth,” said Dustin Hare, founder of a local group that aids the poor and homeless.

The change for Lawrence, which separates it from the rest of its home county, has also been widely criticized by local residents and officials.

For even some of the map's backers, the change seemed to come out of nowhere. But Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, said it was partly a response to Wyandotte County residents saying they didn't want to go into the 1st District with western Kansas. Some GOP lawmakers pushed that idea in 2012 when the 1st District also had to pick up new residents.

“It was abundantly clear they did not want to be in the 1st, so I wanted to honor that,” said Masterson, one of the map's architects.

Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

On Twitter, follow John Hanna at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna and Andy Tsubasa Field at https://twitter.com/AndyTsubasaF