The race for 2020 is on — and it’s about time. President Obama indicated Monday that his top political priority after leaving the White House would be redistricting reform. His former attorney general, Eric Holder, will coordinate the Democrats’ mega-million campaign to earn back a seat at the table when new legislative lines are drawn after the next census.
Obama intends to battle the gerrymanders that have produced GOP super-majorities in state legislatures even when Democratic candidates win a majority of votes — and which have tilted the congressional map so far in the Republicans’ favor that most nonpartisan analysts believe the House remains out of the Democrats’ reach even as polls show Donald Trump’s favorability cratering.
The Democrats have some catching up to do. Politicians of both parties have gerrymandered since the dawning of the republic. But in 2010, savvy strategists based at the Republican State Leadership Committee executed a plan called REDMAP, short for Redistricting Majority Project, and forever changed the rules.
Their plan was so elegant that it’s amazing no one had hit on it before. Most district lines are crafted by state legislatures. Republicans spent $30 million on local state house races in blue and purple states like North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with the goal of tipping state legislatures red — and then having complete control over the map-making process that would determine district lines for the next decade.
Republicans zeroed in on 107 seats in 16 states — and by winning those, and more, they took complete control over drawing 193 congressional districts. That’s a pretty good headstart in the fight for a 218-vote majority; the Democrats, by contrast, had complete control over just 44.
Call it political “Moneyball”: Republicans found a bargain-basement strategy that could lock in control of states and half of Congress for a decade — and all for the price of a small-state US Senate campaign. The lines provided the Republicans with a firewall in Congress that withstood Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. Indeed, Democrats retook the Senate in 2012, but could not budge the House: Democratic House candidates won 1.4 million more votes nationwide than Republicans, but the GOP maintained a 234-201 majority.
The new district lines — crafted with the help of dazzling new computer technology and easily obtained data bases loaded with demographic information — corralled so many Democrats into so few seats in Pennsylvania, for example, that a near-100,000 edge in the popular vote nevertheless resulted in a 13-to-5 GOP edge in the congressional delegation. A 240,000 vote edge in Michigan still sent nine Republicans and just five Democrats to Washington. In Ohio, where Republicans captured almost 52 percent of the aggregate House vote, they netted themselves 12 of 16 seats.
Gerrymandering is a crucial and dramatically misunderstood issue. In a year in which the Republican nominee for president has complained loudly about a “rigged” electoral system, and leaders of both parties have come forward to praise its fairness, we have not heard enough of these entirely legal efforts to tilt the playing field in the favor of the side with fewer votes. Perhaps it will take an unprecedented second presidential election in a row in which the party with fewer votes maintains control of Congress for this conversation to begin in earnest. Democrats need 30 seats to regain the House; if most models hold, and they win between 10 and 20 of those, President Hillary Clinton will have to partner with Speaker Paul Ryan and a smaller but more conservative GOP caucus. The results of 2010 will reverberate through the end of the decade.
Democrats appear unwilling to make the same mistake in 2020. After all, in 2010, Karl Rove announced the GOP strategy on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal, but Democrats never mounted an effective plan to counter it. For the party, this was a catastrophic strategic failure. This time, Democrats promise, they will be ready: The Obama/Holder group will oversee the expensive and complicated plans to challenge the GOP supremacy in the states. They need to start now, because many governors elected in 2017 and 2018 will have an important seat at the table when new lines are drawn.
When the Democrats fell asleep in 2010, it had decade-long repercussions. Any comeback will take coordination and a lot of luck: Democrats have vowed to put $75 million toward a plan called Advantage 2020; Republicans have already promised $125 million for REDMAP 2020. This means Democrats could be outspent, lack the GOP’s element of surprise, and hardest of all, need to find a way to win on maps drawn to withstand a landslide.
The Founders designed the House of Representatives to be the part of the federal government that is most responsive to the people. Instead, through gerrymandering, it has become insulated from voters. When we have so few competitive congressional districts, it means the only elections that matter are party primaries, and that our representatives essentially become chosen by a small percentage of an activist base. This creates campaigns in which no one genuinely tries the art of persuasion, and it sends to Washington politicians with little interest in compromise and governing.
David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy” and the former editor in chief of Salon.