Pennsylvania's high court issued a new congressional district map for the state's 2018 elections on its self-imposed deadline on Monday, potentially giving Democrats a boost in their quest to capture control of the U.S. House unless Republicans are able to stop it in federal court.
The map of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional districts is to be in effect for the May 15 primary and substantially overhauls a congressional map widely viewed as among the nation's most gerrymandered.
The map was approved in a 4-3 decision, with four Democratic justices backing it and one Democratic justice siding with two Republicans against it.
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Compared to the old map, the new version keeps counties and their subsequent communities together, according to Jamie Mogil from voter advocacy group Fair District PA.
"You see more compact and contiguous districts," she said. "Montgomery County is no longer stretched through five districts. Now it's mostly just in District 4."
There is no law mandating congressional and state maps align. Instead, districts are drawn by Democratic and Republican party leaders and voted on by the state legislator. The governor then must sign off.
But the previous map separated rural and urban communities and lumped voters together based on party lines, a lawsuit alleged.
Still, the new map likely gives Democrats a better shot at winning seats in Philadelphia's heavily populated and moderate suburbs where Republicans had held seats in bizarrely contorted districts, including District 7 which has been labeled "Goofy Kicking Donald Duck."
"It snakes across five different counties, spreading from the suburbs in Montgomery County, northwest of Philadelphia, down to the state line in Delaware County (but skirting around the City of Chester), and then west to Chester County, north to Berks County, and even over to a few bits of Lancaster County," according to Fair District PA.
Local lawmakers were quick to respond, including Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli who wasted no time sending a fundraising email to potential donors following the court's decision.
"I am happy to say that my chances of winning both the primary and general elections has substantially increased," his statement read.
With his county now representing nearly 50 percent of District 7, Morganelli's polling numbers have already gone up, he said.
Other Democrats quickly cheered the new map, which could dramatically change the predominantly Republican, all-male delegation elected on a 6-year-old map.
"I applaud the court for their decision and I respect their effort to remedy Pennsylvania’s unfair and unequal congressional elections," Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement emailed to NBC10.
Meanwhile, sitting congressmen, dozens of would-be candidates and millions of voters have to sort out which district they live in barely a month before the candidates' deadline to submit paperwork to run.
"The districts in the City of Philadelphia and surrounding areas have changed considerably, so I’m going to review the court’s map and what it means for the area before I make any decisions regarding my candidacy for Congress," Nina Ahmad, who served as Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement, said.
Republican lawmakers are expected to quickly challenge the map in federal court, arguing that legislatures and governors, not courts, have the constitutional responsibility to draw congressional maps.
"The map and the process by which the PA Supreme Court is undertaking to force it on Pennsylvanians is an affront to the Constitution and over 200 years of precedent," Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said.
"Make no mistake - this is partisan gerrymandering and a blatant power grab and usurpation by the court of the legislative branch."
President Donald Trump weighed in on the new map, calling on Pennsylvania Republicans to "challenge the new 'pushed' Congressional map, all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. Your Original was correct!"
The Democratic-majority state Supreme Court ruled last month in a party line decision that the district boundaries unconstitutionally put partisan interests above neutral line-drawing criteria, such as keeping districts compact and eliminating municipal and county divisions.
The decision is the first time a state court threw out congressional boundaries in a partisan gerrymandering case and handed a victory to the group of registered Democratic voters who sued last June in a lawsuit backed by the League of Women Voters.
Candidates can start circulating petitions to run in their new district in a little over a week, Feb. 27. Pennsylvania has seen a surge in interest in running for Congress with six incumbents elected in 2016 not running again — the most in four decades — and Democrats vehemently opposing Trump.
Pennsylvania's Republican delegation has provided a crucial pillar of support for Republican control of the U.S. House since 2010.
Republicans who controlled the Legislature and governor's office after the 2010 census crafted it to elect Republicans and succeeded in that aim: Republicans won 13 of 18 seats in three straight elections under the now-invalidated map, even though Pennsylvania's statewide elections are often closely divided and registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans.
The new map will not apply to the March 13 special congressional election in southwestern Pennsylvania's 18th District between Republican Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb.