Why you should care
Forget the 2016 race — this will determine the real locus of political power in America for the years ahead.
I’m trying to trace one strip of North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District, the infamous “squiggly line.” It got that moniker for its narrow, serpentine form, which slithers from Charlotte to Greensboro, so you can weave in and out of it three or four times in a half-hour drive. Along Interstate 85, one lone branch juts out provocatively as though it were sticking a middle finger toward Winston-Salem.
That line isn’t flipping the bird at Winston-Salem, of course, but at Democrats. When Republicans gained control of the North Carolina Statehouse in 2010, they promptly set about redrawing voting districts for both state races and congressional ones. The power of their pens proved enormous. Not only did it entrench Republicans in the Statehouse, it also resounded nationally. Before the 2010 redistricting, for instance, North Carolina sent seven Democrats and six Republicans to Congress; after, it sent three Democrats and 10 Republicans. The picture is much the same across the country, where Republicans hold more statehouse power than at any time since the 1920s.
The fight will be long at best: The game’s already rigged.
Now Democrats are fighting back. A broad coalition of party groups, labor unions, environmentalists and pro-choice activists are plotting how to flip a handful of state chambers, including North Carolina’s, that could make the most difference at a national level. They’re fundraising, hiring and super PAC-ing, but mostly their goals are modest, aiming to merely “stop another extreme set of GOP gerrymanders,” as one North Carolina Democratic official puts it. Even so, the fight will be long at best: The game’s already rigged.
One of the biggest challenges will be finding districts where Democrats stand a realistic chance of unseating a conservative incumbent. Only nine or 10 of North Carolina’s 170 legislative districts are competitive, says Carol Teal, who runs Lillian’s List, an advocacy group that’s a spinoff of the pro-choice women’s political group Emily’s List. “Twelve at most,” she says. Teal’s Raleigh office is filled with maps and charts that lay out the terrain in all its graphic glory, including one district that vaguely resembles nunchakus. Nationally, the situation may be even worse: Handicapper the Cook Political Report rates just 25 of 435 congressional districts as competitive for 2016.
To stave off Republican gains, Democrats need wins in the statehouse, which means better recruitment and finance operations. Efforts are just beginning to pick up. Democrats have launched a new super PAC to raise money and bring attention to state races. Emily’s List has created a position focused on state and local politics. And Democratic groups are trying to coordinate their list of target states — not only North Carolina but also Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which went blue in the 2008 presidential election but whose congressional delegations are dominated by Republicans.
That kind of strategic, long-term campaign is nothing new — the GOP has been running one for several elections now. The Republican State Leadership Committee saw a big uptick in its fundraising in 2010, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks money in politics. And over the past three elections, the RSLC has outspent its counterpart, the DLCC, $107 million to $43 million, across the country. It paid off: Republicans netted more than 900 legislative seats during those elections. While Democrats have squawked about just how unfair the lines were, they’ve done it plenty themselves. Election law expert Nathan Persily points out just one recent example: Democrat-controlled Illinois, which they “gerrymandered the hell out of” in 2010.
Some progressives argue that what the GOP has done is flat-out illegal. Back in North Carolina, critics of the 2010 map claim the legislature packed Black voters into a small share of districts where they’re a majority, diluting their power to swing other seats, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. In one interview, the Rev. William Barber, who leads North Carolina’s NAACP, labeled them “apartheid-type districts.” While the state Supreme Court upheld the redistricting move, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out that ruling earlier this year and ordered the state court to reconsider its position on whether race played a major role in redrawing the district. No new ruling has been made yet, though in another redistricting case, the Supreme Court ruled against Alabama’s legislature, sending their map back to be redrawn.
But Persily doesn’t think Supreme Court decisions alone will shake up the balance of power in state legislatures. Even if the court strikes down districts, “they’ll go back to the legislature and the legislature will redraw them” — in a way that’s less racially provocative, but still advantages Republicans. The GOP is prepared for any contingencies. “We feel like we’ve adapted quickly” as the legal and financial rules of the game have shifted, says RSLC President Matt Walter. Oh, and they’ll certainly be raising a lot of cash.
Walter claims that Democrats are using redistricting as an excuse for their devastating recent losses, arguing that some of the “lines Republicans ran on in 2010” were the same ones Democrats drew the decade before. He’s right, and maybe they could make some of those lines work for them again. Another ray of hope for Democrats: 2016 and 2020 will be general election years, when turnout goes up, something that tends to benefit Democrats. And then there’s the rise of Latino voters and other demographic trends, which in places like Virginia and North Carolina are slowly but inexorably moving in Democrats’ favor. Virginia, in fact, will offer a test for Democrats this year, with control of the state Senate up for grabs in November.
Still, Democrats are keeping their outlook for 2020 measured. In places like North Carolina, the best they can probably hope for is winning back the House. At this point, some are hoping simply to preserve veto power, which would at least block some of the GOP’s craziest map designs. That may be the best they can hope for … until 2030.