The Dems failed so badly during the Obama years, it may be a long time before they break the GOP lock in many states
Since President Donald Trump and the GOP-led Congress took office, Democrats are taking to the streets to defend women’s rights, immigrants and Obamacare, and thousands are contacting party officials and progressive groups to explore running for state and federal office in 2018. But do these would-be candidates, fired-up grassroots groups and energized party officials know how steep and difficult their climb back into power will be?
Yes, say the party organizers who assure skeptics they’re paying attention to the electoral nuts and bolts in a way not seen during a Democratic presidency when they lost nearly 1,000 state legislative and House seats.
“There is no question that Republican-led gerrymandering in 2011 has rigged the system against Democrats….What we need to do is level the playing field, unrig that system, so that Democrats can compete and we can translate those campaign tactics into electoral success that actually reflects the will of the voters, which is not happening right now,” Kelly Ward, executive director of the newly formed National Democratic Redistricting Committee said recently on WAMU-FM, a Washington, D.C. public radio station. “That is what the National Democratic Redistricting Committee is trying to lead.”
But the nation’s leading reporter on the darkest and least understood art of tilting elections before votes are cast doesn’t think so.
“They fundamentally don’t understand the structural problems the Democratic Party faces,” replied David Daley, author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind The Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, which describes the GOP plan that created a lock on the House this decade and 31 red-state trifectas, or statehouse and gubernatorial monopolies last November, after losing the presidency and Congress in 2008.
“If the Democrats luck out and they draw the inside straight that it takes to take back the House of Representatives, they will gain an emergency brake on Trump that is valuable,” Daley said. “But it will do nothing, zero, as far as redistricting in 2020, because Congress does not make these lines. State legislatures make these lines. So Democrats are 20, 30, 40 seats behind in some of these states. They’ve made up nothing in the first three cycles [of this decade]. They are not going to make back all of that in two cycles.”
Every decade there is a U.S. Census, after which state legislatures redraw the lines for their states’ legislative districts and U.S. House districts to account for population shifts. That process, redistricting, doesn’t have to be inherently partisan, but it almost always is. And the results last for a decade.
Think of 2016’s presidential election results. In Pennsylvania, Trump won by 44,000 or so votes. In Wisconsin, it was 23,000 or so votes. In Michigan, 11,000 or so. But in all of these states, the GOP won two-thirds of their state legislature’s Senate and House districts, and won two-thirds or more of the U.S. House seats. How is that possible, when their statewide votes are roughly 50-50, differing by less than 1 percent, while in these other races the Republicans are winning serious majorities?
The answer lies in partisan redistricting. It’s not the elephant in the political living room, in the way Republicans facetiously talk about voter fraud while they’re passing racist laws to discourage non-white voter turnout. Partisan redistricting, known as gerrymandering, is the living room. The question, again, is do would-be Democratic candidates for state and congressional really understand that lay of the electoral landscape after the GOP drew its maps after the 2010 Census?
Daley’s book describes the stakes and what happened. In short, Republicans drew maps that packed their voters who regularly turned out for elections into new districts—at the same time that they filled those same districts with unreliable Democratic voters. There are a few other variations on this theme. Republicans would cite the 1965 Voting Rights Act and create districts where they knew a black or Latino would win a House seat by 70 percent or more, but in doing so they’d bleed Democrats from bordering House districts and ensure that more House seats would stay in GOP hands with smaller winning majorities.
“The Democrats fell asleep at the switch,” Daley said. “They did not pay attention to it. They did not pay attention to it even after Karl Rove laid out the playbook in the Wall Street Journal. They didn’t have the strategic imagination to come up with a plan or even the tactical ability to play defense once Karl Rove spelled it out on the op-ed page of the country’s largest newspaper. That’s bad. And they have paid the consequences for that this entire decade.”
Engineering the GOP Comeback
Today, Democrats are looking at the 2018 elections and 2020 in much the same way the GOP looked at 2010 and our current decade. Daley’s book describes what they did to create the “structural problem” that as of last November, resulted in Republicans winning the Congress, gaining complete control of 32 state legislatures and 33 governor’s mansions. He describes how a small GOP team executed a two-part plan before and after the 2010 election that gave us today’s Republican House and red-state monopolies.
This team realized that if it won 100 state legislative races in key states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan in 2010, as well as a few governors’ races, nothing could stop the GOP from engineering a national comeback via redistricting. The Republicans’ two-stage plan worked.
First they ran some of the most vicious ads ever seen in state elections, often non-stop radio, TV or mailers landing 10 days before the 2010s election, when it was too late to respond via media buys. They won enough key races in key states to position themselves to control the redistricting process.
The results were seen immediately after 2012’s Election Day. President Obama was re-elected with a 3.5 million popular vote majority, showing that when there are no boundaries inside states based on voter preferences, Democrats have a winning majority. But when it came to the U.S. House, even as Democrats had 1.4 million more votes nationwide, the GOP ended up with 33 more seats. Democrats who won often had higher percentages than Republican victors, but the GOP took more seats.
The new maps packed or splintered—re-segregated Democratic voters, essentially erasing competitive state and U.S. House races. The result is what Democrats looking to 2018 face: Republicans have a built-in lead in the predictable voter turnout, barring a landslide.
How big a built-in head start do they have?
“It takes 55 to 56 percent of the popular vote [turnout of Democrats in gerrymandered districts] to have a 50-50 chance at a majority,” Daley says. Other number-crunching analysts say that figure is closer to 10 percent, after adding in other GOP-designed voter deterrents like tougher ID laws targeting minorities, students and poor people.
“The mapmakers know the voters who turn out,” Daley said. “These districts are drawn by people with all that information preloaded into their software. They draw these lines knowing who turns out and knowing what kind of elections they turn out for.”
The Republicans didn’t just seal a House majority for this decade; they also sealed state majorities. That’s what enabled all the state-level rollbacks in recent years against voting rights, union collective bargaining, reproductive rights, LGBT rights, etc.
What Can Democrats Do?
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee’s Ward said that what Democrats need to do in 2018 and 2020 is roughly what the GOP did after Obama’s 2008 election and the 2010 U.S. Census (which triggers the once-a-decade redistricting). First they need to win seats at the map-drawing table, and then they need the power to approve fairer maps—or veto power to block bad ones.
“We are approaching it from a holistic viewpoint,” she told WAMU. “The very first thing we need to do is elect Democrats into those positions that will most impact redistricting. You asked earlier, what are some of the most egregious states? When you look at Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, those elections that are happening this cycle affect redistricting in 2021. So for example, the governors who are elected in 2018 are the governors who will sign maps. There are 36 states around the country where the redistricting process is the map written by the legislatures and signed by the governors.”
Ward went on to say that other state-level elections in 2018 also would affect who draws the maps, or who votes on them when they’re done in late 2020 or early 2021.
“I mention the 38 governors’ races around the country that are up,” she said. “You also have 322 state senate seats around the country that are elected as four-year terms this cycle, meaning those state senators will be the people who draw maps and vote on maps in 2021. So we really need to start now by electing the Democrats. But for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, we are looking at what’s the game in 2021.”
By the “game,” Ward is referring to a deeper level in this fight that’s the subject of multiple redistricting federal lawsuits across the country, including some before the Supreme Court. She means what states can and can’t do when they return to the drafting process after the 2020 Census. How far can a red state go in packing Democrats into fewer, more concentrated districts, or cracking them apart as minorities in GOP-winning districts?
“For 2021, because the system is so rigged, not only do we need to elect those Democrats in key positions, but we also need to look at the unconstitutionality of the maps as they stand and make sure that we have an aggressive legal effort,” Ward said. “We need to make sure that we’re looking at opportunities to change the rules, like ballot initiatives and other ways….We are really tackling this from a holistic perspective that prepares for 2021.”
Is Holistic Smart?
Author Daley, who is now a senior fellow with the election reform group FairVote, said the Democrats need to be as surgically precise as the Republicans if their redistricting comeback is to succeed. He doesn’t see quick fixes on the horizon even with the grassroots fervor to defy Trump and defeat the Republicans in 2018.
“The system is knotted up in so many different ways that it will years and multiple strategies to undo,” he said. “And if the Democrats do not approach this with an electoral strategy, with a reform strategy, and with a litigation strategy, they have no chance of leveling the playing field. They need to do all of those things. My concern is they are doing all of those things in the wrong order.”
What matters most is winning the handful of governors’ races in 2018, Daley said, because it’s very unlikely that Democrats will win back legislative majorities in formerly blue and purple states where the GOP completely gerrymandered the districts. While it is laudable that the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has recruited more state legislative candidates in Virginia than in recent years, as it announced last week, Daley argued that it’s an example of the party not looking at what matters most.
“They are getting ahead of themselves on the electoral side and focusing on the wrong races,” he said. “There’s one race that matters in Virginia; it’s the governor’s race. Their statehouse is almost a two-to-one Republican majority. The Democrats are not going to take back the statehouse in Virginia this year. I am sorry to be the dose of realism on this.”
As you might expect, Democrats working on state races don’t agree with that analysis.
“Strong candidates in a favorable electoral environment can overcome structural disadvantages, as we saw last decade,” Carolyn Fiddler, national communications director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, replied via email. “Republicans controlled most of redistricting after the 2001 elections, too, but during the last midterm election during a Republican presidency, Democrats picked up majorities in 10 legislative chambers (and won a U.S. House majority for the first time that decade).”
Fiddler is being upbeat; the election cycle she’s referring to is 2006 under President George W. Bush.
“Additionally, the special elections already held this year demonstrate a clear trend of Democratic energy translating into electoral over-performance,” she continued. “We definitely expect to cut significantly into the GOP majority in the Virginia House this fall (as well as maintain our strong majorities in New Jersey and flip the Washington state senate by way of a special election there in November).”
While it is true that the Republican advantage baked into redistricting is so big its majorities in key states can override gubernatorial vetoes (Ohio) or are a few seats short of being able to do that (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin), the DLCC’s Fiddler is suggesting that Democrats can pick up seats in some of those states this cycle, not winning majorities, but chipping away at the GOP march to super-majorities.
Recovery From Rock Bottom
The 2018 elections are 18 months away. Democrats might be more passionate now than they have been at this point in past federal election cycles. But they are at a historical nadir. The party of the president in power has typically lost 450 state legislative seats in the 75 years since World War II ended. Under Obama, the loss has been more than double that.
The reason is partisan redistricting in 2010, which the GOP focused on like a laser and the Democratic Party’s national leaders ignored. The GOP identified and segregated reliable voters from both parties, and padded districts with enough infrequent Democratic voters to win legislative and House races again and again.
“The numbers have not budged over the course of this decade,” Daley said, first citing state legislative figures. “The Ohio House is 66-33 Republican. Pennsylvania’s is 121-82 Republican. Michigan’s is 63-47. But what’s really interesting to note is that it hasn’t budged in those states in 2012, 2014, 2016—it’s pretty much the exact same place. They have taken all of the swing districts out of these states and Democrats have not been able to make even the slightest incremental gains in the most important states over this decade. To which I would add North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin and Florida.”
Daley continued, citing the impact of redistricting on these states’ U.S. House of Representative’s delegations.
“When you add them all up, it’s 13-5 [Republican vs. Democratic congressman] in Pennsylvania. It’s 12-4 in Ohio It’s 9-5 in Michigan. It’s 7-4 in Virginia, it’s 10-3 in North Carolina and it’s 16-11 in Florida. Republicans have about 60 to 62 percent of the seats in the swing states that usually go Democratic. You can’t take back the House of Representatives unless you gain some seats in those states.”
Daley isn’t suggesting Democrats shouldn’t try to win back a U.S. House majority in 2018. He’s explaining why it will be much harder than many progressive groups and party activists anticipate.
“You can try to flip those 24 seats in the House in 2018. Sure, why not try?” he said. “This is not an argument against trying. I don’t know where you are going to find them [comeback districts]. If you can’t find them in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia, I don’t know where you will find them.”
Other Democrats reply by saying that Hillary Clinton won 23 House districts currently where Republicans also won. That means Democrats must retake all of those, plus one more district elsewhere. Those are long odds and underscore how important and little-understood redistricting is. It’s so powerful that some Republicans are now responding to the Democrats’ rediscovery of the issue by downplaying its importance, essentially playing dumb, which is what their testimony has been in recent federal lawsuits, according to extensive accounts in Daley’s book.
Democrats might be upbeat about their chances to start a comeback in 2018, but Daley says they need to maintain a longer-term focus, so they are not in the political wilderness for another decade.
“Given the reality of how far behind they are in states, the only way for them to have a seat at the table in 2020 in a lot of these states is win the governor’s race in 2018 and get a veto power over bad maps,” he said. “The most important races for Democrats in 2018 are the governors’ races in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida, and the most important race this year is the governor’s race in Virginia. If Democrats do not win those races, redistricting in 2020 is done on Election Day in 2018. It’s over.”
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).