Finally, Democrats Seem Poised to Win at Redistricting

In 2010, Republicans crushed down-ballot races and, with the spoils, gerrymandered like hell. Why it’s different now.

No one needs a reminder of how devastating the 2010 midterm elections were for Democrats. In addition to losing control of the House, Republicans picked up six seats in the Senate. But what can sometimes get lost in our focus on national politics is that Republicans gained trifectas in 12 states—meaning that the GOP won control of both the executive and legislative branch. The Republican victories extended beyond traditional red states to include, ominously, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. That gave Republicans complete control over the process of redistricting in those 12 states, resulting in a net average gain of 19 congressional seats, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. 

But the impact was just as strongly felt at the state level. For example, Republicans took control of state legislatures in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. Scott Walker became the governor of Wisconsin, while my home state of Minnesota barely escaped a Republican trifecta when Democrat Mark Dayton won the governor’s race by a mere 0.4 percent in a three-way race. 

With their trifecta in Wisconsin, Republicans passed a redistricting plan that was hugely favorable to their party. But in Minnesota, the governor’s veto of the Republican plan sent it to a neutral court-appointed commission. The result was that in 2012, Democrats took back control of the state legislative bodies in Minnesota, but Republicans have maintained a gerrymandered majority in Wisconsin throughout the decade. In 2013, journalist Craig Gilbert documented what happened in these two states that, “in their underlying political makeup, may be as similar as any two states in America.”

Wisconsin has been cutting taxes, curbing unions, expanding private school vouchers, and rejecting hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

Minnesota has been raising taxes, empowering unions, legalizing same-sex marriage, and embracing Obamacare.

Wisconsin is getting its most conservative governance in decades. Minnesota is getting its most liberal governance in decades.

The good news is that the 2020 election provides Democrats with an historic opportunity to reverse what happened in 2010. This November is the first time in decades that Democrats hold an advantage heading into a presidential election that is also a prelude to redistricting. Not only do polls show Biden leading the race, the party looks strong up and down the ticket.

Aiding in the effort to end gerrymandering are former Attorney General Eric Holder and Barack Obama, who teamed up to create the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), a political action committee whose mission is to create fair districts where Democrats can compete. Here is how Holder made the case:

NDRC’s comprehensive approach includes four strategies.

  1. Investing in local races that are crucial for redistricting.
  2. Supporting redistricting reforms across the nation.
  3. Taking legal action to overturn gerrymandered maps and protect voting rights.
  4. Building a grassroots campaign to prepare for redistricting battles.

With the election days away, the focus is on number one. The committee  is targeting local elections in 13 states: Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia and endorsed candidates in all of them, including three gubernatorial races and 17 state legislative chambers.

Breaking up Republican trifectas is a primary goal of these efforts, especially in states like Florida and Texas that are likely to gain congressional seats based on recent population estimates. According to Abby Springs from Progress Texasa non-profit media organization promoting progressive messages and action—it would only take nine seats to give Democrats control of the Texas House. She identifies 22 opportunities. 

Data guru Sam Wang has designed a model at Princeton Election Consortium that identifies the races where voters have the most leverage to prevent partisan gerrymandering in Texas, Minnesota, Kansas, Florida, and North Carolina. He points out that a few hundred voters mobilized in the right districts could make all the difference.

As an example of how only a few hundred votes matter, Wang, Springs, and NDRC all target the state house race in Texas’s 134th district where incumbent Republican Sarah Davis faces a challenge from Democrat Ann Johnson. In this southwestern suburb of Houston, Beto O’Rourke won his 2018 Senate race with 60 percent of the vote, while Davis squeezed out a win by only 5,600 votes. On her web page, Johnson addresses why she’s in this fight.

Republicans have left 5 million Texans without health insurance, passed extreme anti-choice laws, kept guns in the hands of domestic abusers, denied climate change, and withheld billions for hurricane recovery and flood prevention. I’m a teacher, small-business owner and public interest lawyer, and I will fight to scrap those GOP policies.

At this point, the best a Democrat in the Texas state legislature could do is attempt to block GOP policies. But if the maps in the state were drawn fairly in 2021 in a way that gives Democrats the chance to compete, Texans could begin to imagine a state where more people get access to health insurance, a woman’s right to choose is protected, common sense gun safety laws are enacted, and the existential threat of climate change is addressed. That is what becomes possible if Democrats understand how much statehouse races matter and make the most of this once-in-a-decade opportunity to end gerrymandering.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.