fb-pixelTurning the political map into a partisan weapon - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Turning the political map into a partisan weapon

The GOP’s national effort to control redistricting has cemented its grip on the House but also intensified gridlock

Conservative US Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, shown during a House subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, now represents the liberal area of Asheville, N.C., because of legislative redistricting.DREW ANGERER FOR THE GLOBE

Tenth in a series.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — In the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains, protests and rallies erupt in this city's downtown square on any given night. Aging hippies and veterans gather at the foot of a granite obelisk known as the monument to tolerance and wave cardboard signs asking motorists to honk against drone warfare and in support of universal health care.

Several Asheville preachers openly advocate for gay marriage, a rarity in the South; it is enough to move one GOP state lawmaker to label the entire community a "cesspool of sin."

Asheville has long carried the distinction of being an island of Democratic blue in a sea of Republican red. For six years, the largest city in western North Carolina was represented in the US House by a moderate Democrat who embodied the party's playbook for the conservative region: a former NFL quarterback named Heath Shuler.

But Shuler decided against seeking reelection last year after the playing field shifted beneath him.


A state Legislature controlled by Republicans redrew his district — splitting liberal Asheville in two and diluting the city's voting power. Shuler stood little chance of winning another term under the redrawn map.

With his decision to retire, another moderate had been purged from the ranks of Congress. Shuler's successor is a freshman Tea Party Republican who, during a campaign rally last summer, advocated sending President Obama "home to Kenya or wherever it is."

Redrawing congressional districts bore fruit for Republicans in other regions of North Carolina, as well as across the rest of the country. It was part of a concerted nationwide strategy engineered by GOP leaders in Washington that has had a profound impact, securing Republican House victories and rolling back Democratic inroads in red states, while increasing polarization and gridlock inside the beltway.


At left, Holland Quinby, Paul Turner, and Chris Berg held a Veterans for Peace vigil in liberal Asheville, N.C.COLBY RABON FOR THE GLOBE

Despite winning 51 percent of the votes in the 2012 House races, North Carolina Democrats only won four of the state's 13 House seats, compared with seven before redistricting. Nationally, Democratic contenders for the House won 1.4 million more votes in 2012, but Republicans retained control of the House by a 234 to 201 margin – a historic aberration that some experts say could have only occurred as a result of redistricting. It was only the second time since World War II that one party won more votes while the opposing party won more seats.

Redistricting, which occurs every 10 years after the national census, contributed to the election of many more conservative Republicans and also some liberal Democrats, political scientists say — resulting in fewer competitive seats, wiping out moderates from both parties, and making dealmaking on issues such as the budget, gun control, and even the farm bill all but impossible.

The trend seems likely to escalate. An army of consultants and mapmakers are paid handsomely to mine mountains of personal data in order to create districts almost certain to favor one party over the other.

Entering the 2014 midterm election, only 30 congressional races are considered to be competitive, compared with 90 in 2010, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

"Redistricting in my opinion is probably the thing that creates the most divisiveness in the country. You've got to run extreme to the right or extreme to the left because it's all about a primary vote now," Shuler said. "That doesn't bode well for compromise, and makes it more and more difficult to get anything done."


Redrawing the lines

It was 2009 when the strategists of the Republican party sat down in a conference room in an Alexandria office park to hatch a secret plan that would be known as REDMAP — the Redistricting Majority Project — to take over the legislatures in key states across the country.

The group belonged to the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national organization established in 2002 to help GOP candidates win state offices, including seats in state legislatures, which draw congressional district maps. The 2010 census and subsequent redistricting presented the first opportunity for the committee to test its power.

After months of research to narrow its targets, the committee rolled out REDMAP in the spring of 2010 with one clear goal. "If we were successful in capturing the legislative chambers in certain states, we'd have a bigger impact in congressional redistricting," said Chris Jankowski, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee. "It's very important who has the pen in their hands when drawing legislative district lines."

In North Carolina, the state Legislature, controlled by Republicans, redrew the district that included Asheville, splitting the liberal city in two and diluting the city’s voting power.COLBY RABON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The committee held a series of meetings in Washington, followed by a flurry of phone calls and briefings around the country, with business leaders and other donors, who contributed more than $20 million to the project, including $1.2 million to flip the state Legislature in North Carolina.

The US Chamber of Commerce, which contributed $3.9 million, was the committee's top donor in the 2010 election cycle. Other major contributors spanned the insurance, telecommunications, retail, and pharmaceutical industries.


The committee also invested in Republicans running for office in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan — among the states most certain to lose a congressional seat as a result of the census — and Georgia and Texas, which gained seats.

In such states, "there's maximum opportunity for mischief," Jankowski said, "and you certainly don't want your opponent drawing those lines."

The practice of drawing district lines to gain partisan advantage has existed since before 1812, when the term "gerrymandering" was coined after a salamander-shaped district drawn up in Massachusetts during the governorship of Elbridge Gerry.

Today states have boundaries nicknamed "earmuff district" and "flat cat road kill district" for their irregular shapes, but never before has one party mounted such a nationally coordinated effort to use the drawing of district lines to win the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

The Democrats also had a plan to take over state houses that would control redistricting, said Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. But it met with considerably less success. Democrats were contending with a backlash in many states against President Obama's health care law, the stimulus bill, and the bad economy, which gave Republicans an advantage.

"Unfortunately, Democrats were the victims of a very difficult national election landscape in 2010," Sargeant said.

The 2010 local legislative results helped lay the foundation for a GOP firewall: the party would control redistricting for 210 congressional seats in 18 states, compared with just 44 seats in six states for Democrats.


National Republicans also capitalized on those local victories by providing map-drawing expertise to state lawmakers.

"We had a team of consultants and lawyers who would assist states in the process," Jankowski said.

The point man for the strategy was Thomas Hofeller, who would not speak with the Globe on the record, citing ongoing lawsuits in multiple states in which he has been called to testify, including in North Carolina.

Hofeller, a redistricting consultant to the Republican National Committee, has been hired by state legislators across the country to gain maximum political advantage without running afoul of the law, including the Voting Rights Act designed to ensure that African-Americans are not disenfranchised.

In Asheville, Hofeller simply became known as The Mapmaker.

In a North Carolina court earlier this month, Hofeller testified that he just did what he has always done: use data from presidential election returns to move precincts or split them based on political party. "The whole plan was a political plan," he said.

Hofeller's been doing this work since 1965, before computer mapping existed and mapmakers used markers to draw out their district lines on acetate film laid over giant maps spread across the floor. Nowadays, Hofeller is armed with sophisticated redistricting software called Maptitude, the geographic information system used by both political parties in a majority of states.

The software, developed by the Newton-based Caliper Corp., allows mapmakers to take into account the trove of voter information available, including partisan registration, past election results, and racial demographics, and move a district line to capture more voters — or, in some cases, dilute their influence by spreading them among multiple districts — and see the results in minutes.

One of the key targets for Republicans in Washington was North Carolina. And in Asheville, Republicans in the state house saw a prime opportunity to pick off one of the few remaining moderate Democrats, who are known as Blue Dogs.

From NFL to Capitol Hill

Heath Shuler grew up in the Smoky Mountains town of Bryson City, N.C., near the Tennessee border and about 65 miles west of Asheville. Central-casting handsome, athletic and personable, he twice quarterbacked his high school football team to the North Carolina championship, became one of the nation's most widely recruited prospects, starred at the University of Tennessee, came in second for collegiate football's Heisman Trophy, and was a first-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins.

Steve Norris, shown gardening with his wife, Kendall Hale, is a professor of environmental justice at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. Recent redistricting leaves left-leaning denizens of Asheville with little hope for change.COLBY RABON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

But Shuler's path to stardom, seemingly scripted to perfection, turned into a career of injuries and shaky statistics. Widely declared one of the biggest busts in the history of the NFL, he was out of the league after a few years.

Then a different type of recruiter showed up. His name was Rahm Emanuel, then a member of the US House and currently the mayor of Chicago. Emanuel figured Shuler was just the kind of person the Democrats needed to win in the congressional district that included Asheville. An evangelical Christian who spoke openly about his faith, Shuler opposed abortion rights. He opposed gun control. And he was swayed by Emanuel's pitch — that the good folks of western North Carolina needed a conservative Democrat to reflect their views in Washington.

Shuler won by a 54 to 46 margin, and in the following six years made a convincing case that he was among the most conservative Democrats, voting against President Obama's health reform law and even challenging Nancy Pelosi for the post of minority leader. He won reelection twice. As one of the few remaining Southern white Democrats in Congress, he built bridges with Republicans, consistently ranking as one of the House's least partisan members.

Shuler had failed with the football team in Washington but — with considerably less fanfare and financial remuneration — he had shown it was possible to reinvent himself and rise to power in the other blood sport of the nation's capital.

But Republican leadership saw him as a threat in Washington's winner-take-all culture, and wanted to deny the Democrats a toehold in the South.

When Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly released the new district maps in 2011, Shuler's campaign staff was on edge.

Lindsey Simerly, his former field director, recalled sitting at the kitchen table in her Asheville bungalow when her phone rang. It was Shuler's finance director, calling with the grim news minutes after the map was released online. "We're done," she recalled him saying.

"I was just kind of speechless," said Simerly, who now works for the Campaign for Southern Equality in support of gay marriage. "Take our worst possible case scenario. This ended up being worse."

Shuler, already frustrated by the seemingly endless gridlock in Congress, weighed the possibility of retiring to spend more time with his wife and two young children. He claims that redistricting did not play a role in his decision, given his high approval ratings.

But despite appeals from Democratic leadership to fight for his seat, Shuler returned home to the mountains of western North Carolina.

Left-leaning residents

Once famous for its sanatoriums because of its fresh mountain air, Asheville is now a major medical center and hotbed of holistic healing that draws liberal transplants who embody the "live and let live" ethos.

The city offers domestic partner benefits to gay couples and has created a registry to recognize same-sex relationships in the absence of legalized gay marriage.

A liberal pastor of an Asheville, N.C. church said ministers in the city meet often to discuss their different views. He said he’d like Democrats and Republicans to do the same.COLBY RABON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Republicans' redistricting effort here grafted downtown Asheville onto a GOP stronghold in the Piedmont region. It also left the most populous city in western North Carolina without a congressional office. The city's new representative's nearest office is 16 miles away in Black Mountain.

"They literally divided the city. Because of redistricting, it didn't matter that a huge majority statewide voted for Democrats. It feels like we're living in Mississippi," said Cheryl Orengo, a 60-year-old birthing coach who hosts a monthly dinner for local liberals at Firestorm Cafe, a worker-owned bookstore and vegan restaurant in downtown Asheville.

"In my mind, that's a coup d'état," said Steven Norris, a 70-year-old Boston transplant who teaches peace studies and environmental justice at Warren Wilson College near Asheville, during the dinner. "I feel so disempowered not having any sort of voice in Congress."

Democratic voters in other parts of the state claimed to suffer in a different way. Instead of being dispersed among solidly red districts, they were stuffed into a small number of super majority Democratic districts. That left some more liberal residents feeling their vote had lost some potential sway.

Nearly half of the state's black population was funneled into the three remaining solidly blue districts, a move critics call a manipulation of the Voting Rights Act as a pretext for isolating Democrats and minority voters.

"Redistricting is just divide and conquer. There is no sleight of hand, no Wizard of Oz," said Keith Young, 33, president of the African-American caucus of the Buncombe Country Democrats who lives in Asheville. "When you can't win the football game and you have the ability to move the goal farther back, why not do it?"

Five formerly purple districts — those that swung between Republicans and Democrats, including Shuler's — turned solidly red.

Two Democrats who had represented these swing districts found their homes now located in districts represented by other Democratic incumbents.

Districts whose boundaries used to follow roads, rivers and railways now zigzag every which way to snag voters of the desired ideological stripe. In Asheville, the dividing line can fall in the middle of a road, so that houses on one side land in one district while their neighbors across the street are in another.

"It's gerrymandering on steroids," said Charles Carter, a Democratic political consultant and former North Carolina state representative from Asheville.

But Republicans in North Carolina, in full control of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction, say redistricting simply righted the order of things.

"It's the Southeast. There are a bunch of conservatives down here," said Nathan West, 36, secretary of the Buncombe County Young Republicans. "It really wouldn't matter where Asheville was put."

Sam Wang, a Princeton neuroscience professor and founder of the Princeton Election Consortium, said the GOP's North Carolina strategy was evident across the country.

"What's really striking is it's happened across multiple states all at once, flipping a dozen seats that would otherwise not have been flipped," Wang said.

Other states where more people voted for Democrats but Republicans won the majority of congressional seats were: Pennsylvania, where Democrats won 5 of 18 seats; Michigan, where they won 5 of 14 seats; and Wisconsin, where they captured just 3 of 8 seats.

In Illinois, Democrats redrew boundaries to their advantage and won 11 of the 17 seats being contested last November.

And in Maryland, where they also controlled redistricting, Democrats won 7 of 8 seats.

The job of mapmakers has become easier because more voters are choosing to live in homogeneous communities where neighbors tend to hold similar political views, said David Wasserman, house editor at Cook Political Report.

The 2012 election was the first time that a majority of Americans lived in counties that gave one of the presidential candidates at least 60 percent of the vote, he said.

"For the vast majority of states we saw gerrymandering work to artificially inflate a party's advantage and to trample the notion of proportional representation," Wasserman said.

The new North Carolina map is being challenged in a state Superior Court, just one of 93 lawsuits related to congressional redistricting in 32 states. The North Carolina case went to trial earlier this month, and a decision is expected soon.

The plaintiffs, including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, alleged that Republicans unconstitutionally segregated black voters into gerrymandered districts to boost the chances of GOP candidates in other districts.

The court has already dismissed claims by voters in Asheville that they were disenfranchised, saying it had no standard by which to judge those allegations, which were not based on race.

"Since it seems like the courts won't wade into partisan gerrymandering disputes, people are pushing the boundaries even more than they have in the past," said Allison Riggs, staff attorney for the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is representing the plaintiffs.

Conservatives win

Residents in Shuler's former district are now represented by two of the most conservative members of Congress: Mark Meadows, the Tea Party freshman and former real estate developer who handedly beat Shuler's former chief of staff by campaigning on his "moral obligation to stop Barack Obama's assault on our values," and Patrick McHenry, a fifth-term incumbent who had accused John McCain of being too liberal during his 2008 presidential campaign.

In his short time in Congress, Meadows has already accumulated a track record that toes the Republican party line, voting to repeal Obama's signature health care law, to ban abortion after 20 weeks, and against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

McHenry, whose staunchly Republican district has now absorbed the liberal core of downtown Asheville, has held up as a role model the late Senator Jesse Helms, the strident North Carolina conservative who was nicknamed "Senator No" for obstructing legislation including those pertaining to the rights of minorities, women, and gays.

While Shuler had angered many left-leaning Democrats for his conservative stance on social issues, he had assembled a staff with diverse views on gay rights and gun rights and listened to everyone's concerns, many Asheville Democrats said.

He was also able to gain the support of moderate Republicans in the more rural communities of western North Carolina.

"Before redistricting, we had a situation where a liberal could never be elected, but someone had to reach out to liberals to get into office," said Erica Palmer, 27, during a meeting of the Buncombe County Young Democrats at a downtown cafe. "Now Republicans have such an easy margin of victory they don't have to communicate with us at all."

McHenry and Meadows urge their liberal constituents in Asheville not to dismiss them.

"Look, I had some constituents who were disappointed to gain me as a representative but I do my best to represent the views of the people in my district," McHenry said. "That gets trickier when the views diverge, but I'll do my best to keep listening."

Meadows said he casts his votes based not on his personal feelings but on what the majority of his constituents in "God's Country" tell him to do.

Asheville residents should be pleased by the new district maps, Meadows said. "Because of redistricting, we now have two people working for Asheville."

Going for a ‘Hail Mary’

During what would be his final term in Congress, Shuler had a sense of what was coming, how local redistricting could increase partisan divides in Washington.

The former quarterback attempted what in his previous life would have been considered a "Hail Mary."

He introduced a redistricting reform bill to require that states set up independent, bipartisan commissions to take over the once-a-decade task of redrawing district lines.

His bill required that a district's geographical features be the prime consideration, not a political calculus designed to benefit one party or the other.

"It was right for the country, no matter which party was in charge," said Shuler, now a lobbyist for Duke Energy.

It would be the 11th time Shuler and fellow Blue Dog Democrats had filed legislation to make such a change in recent years, according to the Library of Congress. But the idea gained zero traction among House colleagues.

Congressional incumbents of both parties were loath to make radical changes, he explained.

"The people in these safe seats, all they have to worry about is one election as opposed to two. Why would they want to do something that would put them in a situation that would make their primary and their general election more competitive?"

In 2008, there were 55 Blue Dog Democrats in Congress. Now, there are only 14 left. Moderate Republicans face the same dramatic pace of extinction. That leaves the left-leaning denizens of Asheville with little hope for change.

The Rev. Joe Hoffman, pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, a liberal church on the edge of downtown, said he would like Democrats and Republicans to talk and listen to each other.

He pointed out that ministers from various North Carolina denominations already are making such efforts, meeting for breakfast every couple of months to discuss their diverse views and increase understanding.

"We're trying to learn to talk again, which is what I'd like to see them do in Washington," Hoffman said. "We've forgotten how to debate. We've forgotten how to compromise."

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.