The GOP operation to take over state legislatures and House districts has been an unqualified success on a scale that defines just how impossible it will be for Democrats to ever have control of the US House for at least another decade, and probably two. This excerpt from author David Daley's new book shows us just what abandoning Obama in 2010 cost us: the House may not be in play for another 15 or 20 years at the least.
In July 2009 Chris Jankowski sat down at his Richmond home with the morning New York Times. It had been eight months since Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the presidential election, capturing Republican stronghold after stronghold and helping to usher in a Democratic supermajority in the Senate. On television and on the front pages of newspapers, pundits had openly questioned how the GOP would survive to the next election. Even the brightest conservative thinkers thought the 2008 results signaled danger for the GOP.
That July morning, buried inside a story about state legislatures and census projections, Jankowski read something that made him think 2008 wasn’t so fateful after all: “2010 is not just any election year,” wrote Timescorrespondent Adam Nagourney, “it is crucial given that this class of governors will be in charge as their states draw Congressional and state legislative districts as part of the reapportionment process after the next census.” Jankowski immediately recognized the opportunity. As written in the Constitution, every state redraws all of its lines every ten years. That means elections in “zero years” matter more than others. Jankowski realized it would be possible to target states where the legislature is in charge of redistricting, flip as many chambers as possible, take control of the process, and redraw the lines. Boom. Just like that — if Republicans could pull it off — the GOP would go from demographically challenged to the catbird seat for a decade. At least.
“I read it and I thought we could do this,” Jankowski told me. As one of the leading tacticians behind the Republican State Leadership Committee, Jankowski had spent years trying to arm-twist GOP strategists and donors to spend more on down-ballot races: state houses, state attorneys general, local judges. Those might not be the sexy elections to invest in, but donations that would be a mere drop in the bucket to a presidential or Senate candidate might make all the difference at the local level. And unlike gridlocked Washington, D.C., policy outcomes could actually be influenced in state capitals.
Every state handles creating their district maps a little differently. Arizona, Iowa, California, Washington, Idaho, and New Jersey all use various commission models. But the vast majority of states leave redistricting up to some combination of the legislature and the governor. Jankowski looked for states that were likely to gain or lose seats after reapportionment, and would therefore be tearing up the old maps and starting from scratch with a different number of districts. Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, and North Carolina made that list. He looked for states where control was tight, and swinging just a handful of districts might tip the chamber to the Republicans, such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Virginia, even New York. Then he checked for states where Republicans might control the legislature and the governor’s office, and would therefore be able to lock the Democrats out of redistricting altogether. He didn’t want a Democratic governor, for example, to be able to veto a plan.
The annual report by Jankowski’s organization, the Republican State Leadership Committee, laid out the mission for the world to see: “Drawing new district lines in states with the most redistricting activity presented the opportunity to solidify conservative policymaking at the state level and maintain a Republican stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade.”
“Our pitch document said, look, there are 25 true swing congressional districts,” Jankowski told me as we sat in the conference room of his Richmond offices. “We went back to those races from 2002 to 2008, and we found that $115 million had been spent on those 25 congressional races. All hard dollars. We had a graphic on the screen: 115 million hard dollars or $20 million in soft and we can fix it. We can take control of these 25 districts. We can take them off the table.” They called their project REDMAP.
Obamacare became the wedge issue to win those 25 REDMAP districts, and the rest became history. Democrats were completely, totally unprepared to deal with countering REDMAP in any way. Taking 25 districts turned into taking more than 60, plus the state legislatures needed to gerrymander the districts to become permanently Republican.
And the Democrats got slaughtered. 2014 made it even worse. Now best case scenario is that Donald Trump is such an awful candidate that the Dems make headway, but that headway will almost certainly be lost in 2018.
It will take two, maybe three census redistricting cycles to undo what the GOP has done at the state level. Ironically the rise of Trump and the death of Justice Scalia may do more to save the country than anything the Democrats have tried to do in the last six years, or the next sixteen.