WASHINGTON, May 23 (Reuters) - For the last two elections, Democrats regarded Brian Fitzpatrick as one of the U.S. Congress's most vulnerable Republicans, but both times they failed to unseat him, even when his suburban Philadelphia district voted for Democratic President Joe Biden.
He is again on their target list for the Nov. 8, 2022, midterm elections - which will determine whether Biden's Democrats keep control of Congress - but Democratic officials say finding a suitable candidate could be a challenge because the borders of the district are in flux and could be for months.
"That's a significant concern," said John Cordisco, chairman of the Democratic Party in Bucks County, which lies within the district. "When you are challenging a multiple-term incumbent, if you don't have immediate name recognition -- it becomes very problematic."
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The reason for the uncertainty is redistricting, the once-a-decade process by which House of Representatives districts are redrawn based on shifts in the U.S. population. The process always unsettles congressional elections, but this year the coronavirus pandemic has added to the turbulence by delaying the delivery of the census data needed to draw the districts until September.
"This is the most challenging redistricting cycle in decades," said Michael Li, a lawyer at New York University's nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.
The redistricting delays compound what is already shaping up to be a difficult election for Democrats. Typically, the party that holds the White House loses seats in Congress in the president's first term. Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to take control.
In states such as California, which has its map set by an independent commission, the redistricting process could run up against next spring's deadlines for candidates to file.
"For a lot of folks, that can really stall their rollout in terms of running for office," said Paul Mitchell, a redistricting consultant in Sacramento. "It's a bigger problem for challengers."
California is home to four of 21 Republican-held districts the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, an arm of the party that backs House candidates, has targeted for next year. Fitzpatrick's district is another. The DCCC has also identified 32 other seats held by Democrats that it considers vulnerable.
Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, has billed himself as an independent voice in Congress. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
Republican control of the vast majority of state legislatures gives the party an advantage: In states where partisan lawmakers will draw the new maps, Republicans will fashion 187 new congressional districts, Li said. Democrats will draw just 75.
STATES OF PLAY
Redistricting is likely to further endanger Democrats' prospects for holding the House. Democrats retain hope that moderate voters will be put off by Republicans' continued embrace of former President Donald Trump, even after the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, while giving them credit for the country's improving fortunes as the pandemic eases.
Republican-controlled legislatures in Florida, Georgia and Texas likely will attempt to create maps that reduce the number of competitive House seats by concentrating Democratic voters in clusters, a process known as gerrymandering.
Those maps are almost certain to draw lawsuits charging they unfairly favor Republicans at the expense of Democrats and historically marginalized voters. But the compressed timeframe means the districts may remain in effect for the 2022 elections even as the cases are fought in court, Li said.
In Georgia, Democratic gains around Atlanta could be diminished if the legislature combines the seats held by Representatives Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath into a single district. In Texas, a suburban Dallas district narrowly won both by Biden and Republican Beth Van Duyne that Democrats hope to take next year could be redrawn to bolster Van Duyne's reelection prospects.
In Florida, some veteran Democrats are heeding the warning signs. Representative Charlie Crist is leaving his seat to run for governor. Representatives Val Demings and Stephanie Murphy are eyeing challenges to Republican Senator Marco Rubio.
Pennsylvania, which stands to lose a seat due to population changes, will offer a different challenge. If its Republican-controlled legislature and Democratic governor cannot agree upon a new map, the state Supreme Court will intervene, as it did ahead of the 2018 elections.
The process could spill deep into next year, perhaps giving Fitzpatrick an insurmountable advantage, said Cordisco, the Democratic county chairman.
A spokesperson for the DCCC would not address whether the uncertainty surrounding redistricting was affecting candidate recruiting but said the party would fight to ensure that maps across the country are drawn fairly.
Li, the Brennan Center lawyer, said that it may already be too late for such efforts to make a difference.
Republicans, he said, "have the ability to lock in a good chance of having a majority the rest of the decade. That's what is at stake. The whole of the decade is on the line."
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