By Joseph Ax
LOWER MERION, Pa. (Reuters) - In Pennsylvania state Senator Daylin Leach's bid to win a seat vital to the Democratic Party's chances in 2018 elections of taking control of the U.S. Congress, his opponents may not be his biggest obstacle.
Leach is running in one of the country's most gerrymandered congressional districts, one with such a twisting, winding shape that it has earned the derisive nickname "Goofy Kicking Donald Duck."
The 7th congressional district has become a national poster child for critics of gerrymandering, the process by which one party draws district boundaries to ensure an advantage among voters. Democrats say the lines have helped Republicans like U.S. Representative Patrick Meehan, the four-term incumbent Leach seeks to unseat, to stay in office.
That could soon change, however. On Monday in state court in Harrisburg, one of three lawsuits challenging those boundaries heads to trial. The outcome could shift several battleground districts in Pennsylvania and in turn boost the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, where they last held the majority from January 2007 to January 2011.
The 7th district is so precisely engineered that at one point it narrows to the width of a single seafood restaurant, snaking past two other congressional districts so it can link two far flung Republican-leaning areas.
"Three congressional districts all converge on this spot," Leach said from the parking lot at Creed's Seafood and Steaks last week, as cars whizzed overhead on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
"This is the sixth; over there is the seventh; and down that road is the 13th," he said, pointing in several directions. "This is what gerrymandering looks like on the ground."
Leach has at least four opponents to defeat in the Democratic primary before he would run against Meehan. A spokesman for the Republican did not respond to requests for comment on the trial over gerrymandering.
Critics of gerrymandering say it helps explain why Pennsylvania has sent 13 Republicans and only five Democrats to the U.S. House since the 2011 redistricting, despite being a closely divided swing state.
Republican legislators counter that the lines were drawn in accordance with the law and that their candidates have prevailed in elections thanks to superior policy ideas.
The Democrats have targeted six Republican-held districts in the state as part of their quest to pick up the 24 House seats they need to overturn the Republicans, who also have a Senate majority and President Donald Trump in the White House.
Democrats need to win the nationwide popular vote by at least 10 points in 2018 to do so, in part because of gerrymandered lines, according to Michael Li, a redistricting expert and lawyer at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.
"Pennsylvania is probably the most aggressive of the gerrymanders," he said. "You look at some of the maps in the Philadelphia suburbs, and it looks like a 4-year-old just slapped paint around."
DISTRICT LINES ON TRIAL
The non-partisan League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania sued the state in June, arguing the maps violate the state constitution by depriving residents of a meaningful vote.
The litigation is part of a growing set of legal challenges to partisan redistricting, including a U.S. Supreme Court case out of Wisconsin that could for the first time establish a constitutional standard to measure the legality of such map-making. The high court is scheduled to decide that case by June 2018, five months before the midterm elections.
"The politicians are not supposed to pick their voters; the voters are supposed to elect their leaders," said Mimi McKenzie, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center who represents the League of Women Voters and other Pennsylvania voters.
Spokesmen for the state's Republican legislative leaders, defendants in the case, said the redistricting followed the process laid out in the state constitution and that the U.S. Supreme Court has said political considerations can play a role.
"They just can't understand how Republicans can actually beat their candidates," Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, said of the legal challengers.
In addition to the state case, two pending federal lawsuits also challenge the district lines as unconstitutional. Legal observers consider the state lawsuit the most likely to succeed in time for the voting next November.
The Democratic-majority state Supreme Court has ordered the presiding judge to render his decision by Dec. 31. The high court will then determine whether to accept his ruling or issue its own conclusions.
The state lawsuit asserts the redistricting included numerous examples of blatantly partisan lines.
Democrat-dominated Reading, one of the most economically depressed cities in the state, was carved out of the 6th district and placed into the reliably Democratic 13th, a move the plaintiffs said was intended to render the city's votes meaningless.
Montgomery County, where state senator Leach lives, has approximately 820,000 residents, slightly more than the 711,000 needed for a single congressional district, but has been sliced into five separate districts.
Leach said he would make gerrymandering a campaign issue.
"It's theft of democracy," Leach said. "This is horribly destructive."
The story was refiled to correct paragraph 4 to say that Democrats held majority in U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011, not 2009 to 2011
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Grant McCool)