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The Coming Battle for Redistricting

The election-year upheaval and chaos we are witnessing now isn’t just about Donald Trump—it’s Democrats playing the long game into the next decade.

The double whammy of coronavirus and racial strife is expected to hasten a population shift that’s been underway for the past decade: residents fleeing overtaxed and delinquent—both financially and in terms of leadership—blue states to seek refuge in more prosperous red (or reddish) states located primarily in the Sunbelt.

The most recent diaspora from mostly Democratic-run cities and states, however, won’t figure into the results of the 2020 census. But Democrats have been paying close attention to the threat posed by the shrinking base on their most reliable political turf—and are working hard to make sure that people who’ve been voting with their feet don’t erode the party’s present advantage in Congress or the Electoral College.

One could argue that the biggest political prize in November isn’t who wins the White House but which party controls the legislatures when mandatory redistricting begins in several key states next year. In most circumstances, state houses and senates control the map with final approval coming from the governor. It’s a process fraught with backroom deals, favoritism, and revenge. What’s at stake now is the potential loss of Democratic congressional districts heading into the 2022 midterms and with it, the loss of critical electoral votes in the 2024 presidential race.

That’s why Democrats have charged one of their most relentless henchmen—former Attorney General Eric Holder—with the task of managing the party’s nationwide redistricting project. Holder, Barack Obama’s self-proclaimed “wingman,” is chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. With the backing of his onetime boss, Holder’s committee is targeting legislative races in ten states that will have a big impact on future elections.

After the GOP routed Democrats across the board in 2010, according to Holder, Republicans created districts that didn’t fairly represent the best interests of Americans. 

“These gerrymandered districts have had disastrous policy consequences, leading to  some of the most right-wing legislation in decades both in Congress and at the state level, including assaults on women’s health, suppressing the vote for people of color, failing to address climate change, and refusing to stand up to the epidemic of gun violence,” the committee’s website claims. “These policies don’t reflect the majority of voters, but because Republicans have rigged the system in their favor, voters are limited in their ability to do anything about it.”

Holder is asking candidates to take a pledge to “stand against gerrymandering and map manipulation.” Joe Biden and hundreds of local Democratic candidates have signed the pledge so far. The committee’s PAC has raised nearly $7 million since 2018, which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to have an impact on crucial legislative races; more funds undoubtedly will flow into its coffers as Election Day nears.

Targeted States

Here’s what’s on the NDRC’s hit list: The state senate in Minnesota and Louisiana; the state house in Kansas, Texas, Georgia, and Ohio; and both chambers in Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

Three of those states—Ohio, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania—are projected to lose one congressional seat before the 2022 midterms. (California, Michigan, Illinois, and West Virginia also will lose one congressional seat. New York might lose two.)

Ohio, a state that Donald Trump won by a wide margin after it twice elected Barack Obama, now has a Republican “trifecta,” which means the House, Senate, and the governor’s mansion are controlled by the same party. Twelve of the Buckeye State’s 16 congressmen are Republicans; eliminating one Democratic district would give the GOP a lock hold. Holder’s plan to flip the Ohio House and Senate, both with comfortable Republican majorities, seems unlikely—deleting Ohio from the Democrats’ must-win list in the future seems more likely.

Democrats in Pennsylvania scored big in 2018 after the state’s Democratic-majority supreme court drew new boundaries, erasing Republican districts and leading to the election of four new Democratic congressmen in the midterms. But Republicans still have a 29-21 advantage in the state senate and a 110-93 advantage in the house. Democratic Governor Tom Wolf would have to sign off on any new map, which is why Holder’s committee is trying to flip both chambers. (Or hope for a do-over of 2018 that would let a few judges decide.)

One of the big electoral prizes in the presidential race in November will be Minnesota. Barack Obama twice trounced his Republican opponents there, but Donald Trump came within striking distance in 2016, only losing Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes by less than two percentage points.

Democrats won Minnesota’s state house in 2018; Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the state senate. Flipping the senate would put Democrats in the driver’s seat, since Minnesota’s governor also is a Democrat. Right now, only three of Minnesota’s eight House seats are held by Republicans. A Trump-heavy district held by Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat, is rated as a toss-up. A poll in late May only gave Biden a five-point advantage—the battle for the White House and redistricting authority will be pitched in the North Star State.

As the party’s vaunted blue wall in the Midwest continues to crumble—2018 results notwithstanding—Democrats are looking toward other states to make up for those losses. One state on Holder’s radar is North Carolina. Like Pennsylvania, a panel of judges overturned the state’s majority-Republican congressional map, prompting the creation of two new Democratic-majority districts. (Both are rated “likely Democrat” in 2020 projections.) The state is slated to add one congressional seat after 2020 census results are in, boosting North Carolina’s electoral vote count from 15 to 16.

In 2018, Republicans lost their supermajority in both chambers; the GOP holds a 10-seat advantage in the North Carolina House of Representatives and an eight-seat majority in the state senate. Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, barely won in 2016 and is up for reelection this year; the race is rated as lean Democratic.

High voter turnout in North Carolina is expected as Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis also is up for reelection and trailing. This coupled with a Trump slump could give Democrats enough mojo to cut or oust the Republican majority in the state legislature. But Democrats will need to sweep; the Tar Heel State is one of two states that doesn’t give the governor veto power over the map. That will be a good one to watch.

Far-Fetched Goals

Most of Holder’s hit list, however, looks more like a wish list. It’s doubtful that Georgia’s House of Representatives, where the GOP has a 30-seat majority, will flip to Democrats. Same for Wisconsin; both state chambers have strong Republican majorities and Democrat Tony Evers barely beat incumbent Scott Walker in 2018. (The GOP picked up one senate seat that year.)

Flipping Florida’s legislature from red to blue is just as far-fetched; the Sunshine state is expected to add two new congressional seats next year—Republicans dominate the state house, hold a six-seat majority in the state senate and occupy the governor’s mansion.

The Democrats’ biggest headwind, now and in the future, will be Texas, which is expected to add three new congressional seats. The NDRC is taking aim at the Texas house, but Republicans have a 16-seat majority in that chamber after losing 10 seats in 2018. Not only will a Republican “trifecta” decide the new (presumably) GOP congressional districts, Texas’ electoral count will rise to 41, making it second only to California’s 54.

That’s another reason why leading Democrats are getting serious about abolishing the Electoral College. Not only could reconfigured congressional districts favor Republicans after next year, but red states will also gain electoral votes while traditionally Democratic states will lose electors. 

Further, those states that have reliably voted Democratic in every presidential election since the 1980s are trending Republican. Despite Trump’s poor polling right now, the president still has a very good shot at running the table again in the Midwest, with the exception of Illinois, and possibly picking off Minnesota.

If that trend holds into the next decade, how will Democrats replace those votes? Sure, states like Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon will pick up one electoral vote each and could vote blue but that will hardly offset losing Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida for good.

The election-year upheaval and chaos we are witnessing now isn’t just about Donald Trump—it’s Democrats playing the long game into the next decade. Let’s hope the Republican Party is on notice and playing for keeps, too.