Democrats: It’s the states, stupid!

By Herman Schwartz
July 14, 2013

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

Unless the Democrats wake up to the importance of winning state legislative elections, they are likely to remain a largely impotent minority in the House of Representatives and equally feeble in the state legislatures. The momentous Supreme Court decisions on the Voting Rights Act, same-sex marriage and affirmative action make winning these races all the more vital, for all these rulings deal with state action. The huge Republican victory in the 2010 election could turn out to be a gift that keeps giving.

The GOP electoral sweep in 2010 was no accident. Republicans understand the importance of the state legislative races. After the 2008 election the GOP adopted a strategy called the REDistricting MAjority Project (REDMAP). As Karl Rove explained:

“[S]ome of the most important contests this fall will be way down the ballot in . . . state legislative races that will determine who redraws congressional district lines after this year’s census, a process that could determine which party controls upwards of 20 seats and whether many other seats will be competitive.”

Republicans focused on 107 state legislative seats in 16 states where GOP wins in four or five Democratic districts per state would enable the Republicans to re-shape about 190 congressional districts. Leading GOP strategist Ed Gillespie ran this operation. He took over the Republican State Leadership Committee, and the party poured more than $30 million into these contests. It also spent many millions on various gubernatorial contests.

REDMAP succeeded brilliantly. In 2010, the GOP netted some 700 state seats, increasing its share of state House and Senate seats by almost 10 percent, from approximately 3200 to over 3900. It took over both legislative chambers in 25 states and won total control of 21 states (legislature and governorship) — the greatest such victory since 1928. In 17 of these states, GOP legislatures controlled the congressional redistricting for 173 seats. The other five GOP states have only one congressional district or rely on an independent commission.

Republicans promptly went on a gerrymandering spree. In 2011, the GOP remapped these states to protect congressional and state Republicans in newly acquired competitive districts.

The 2012 elections showed how effective this 2011 gerrymandering was. As the RSLC boasted in January:

“Pennsylvanians cast 83,000 more votes for Democratic U.S. House candidates than their Republican opponents, but elected a 13-5 Republican majority to represent them in Washington; Michiganders cast over 240,000 more votes for Democratic congressional candidates than Republicans, but still elected a 9-5 Republican delegation to Congress. Nationwide, Republicans won 54 percent of the U.S. House seats, along with 58 of 99 state legislative chambers, while winning only 8 of 33 U.S. Senate races and carrying only 47.8 percent of the national presidential vote.”

The tactics were stunning. Though the GOP lost the House popular vote by almost 1.4 million votes, this translated into a loss of just eight congressional seats.

North Carolina provides a striking example. The state’s congressional vote and delegation had usually split closely in the decade since 2002. In 2010, for example, the House delegation was 7 to 6 Democratic. After the 2011 gerrymandering however, the results no longer reflected the state’s fairly even partisan split. In 2012, the Democrats won more congressional votes than the Republicans, 50 percent to 48.9 percent, but the new gerrymandering gave the GOP a 9 to 4 congressional majority.

In Virginia and Ohio, the House vote went narrowly for Republicans — 50 percent to 48 percent in Virginia and 51 percent to 47 percent in Ohio — but the congressional outcomes leaned strongly Republican: 8-3 in Virginia and 12-4 in Ohio.

Overall, Democratic House voters outnumbered Republicans in seven Republican states, but gerrymanders in those states produced Republican majorities in their congressional delegations.

REDMAP proved equally effective in reshaping the state legislative districts. The state gerrymanders enabled Republicans to raise their control of the state governments to 25 from 21. In Michigan, for example, Democrats won more than 54 percent of the vote in state House elections but earned only 46 percent of the seats — 51 out of 110. In Ohio, the state House vote also went Democratic —  51 percent to 48 percent –  but Democrats received only 43 of the 99 seats.

In North Carolina, a 52 percent — 48 percent state Senate GOP victory gave the Republicans almost double the number of seats — 34 to 16. The GOP’s slim House margin of 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent produced a 77 to 43 seat Republican majority.

The post-2010 Southern gerrymandering virtually guarantees that all the Southern legislatures will remain Republican for the foreseeable future, regardless of the popular vote. This, together with the GOP’s congressional gerrymandering elsewhere in the country, will produce a substantial ultra-conservative block in the U.S. Congress and is almost certain to make it extremely difficult for the Democrats to retake the House. Even if the Democrats take the presidency and the Senate, the result is likely to be a continuation of what we have today: Gridlock and a failure to deal with the pressing problems we face.

The GOP has used its control of these state governments to enhance its electoral position in other ways. Since January 2011, scores of new voter suppression measures have been adopted in such key swing states as Florida, Virginia, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. These measures include stringent voter photo IDs, discriminatory redistricting plans, cutbacks in early voting, relocating urban voting precincts, ending same day registration and more.

We can expect to see many more such measures after the Supreme Court’s recent Shelby County v. Holder decision striking down the formula in Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that determines which jurisdictions are likely to discriminate against racial and language minorities, and require federal approval for all voting changes there. Now, however, these states and localities will be able to adopt a multitude of measures aimed at either reducing the minority vote or eliminating minority officeholders — just as Texas initiated soon after the ruling was announced.

These include hundreds upon hundreds of changes either already denied preapproval (more than 700 between 2002 and 2006) like the disallowed voter ID law in Texas, or similar laws in Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia, whose effective date was delayed pending the outcome in Shelby County. Most of these measures are at the local level — 85 percent by one estimate — which would normally fall under the radar but for the preclearance requirement. There are also an incalculable number of changes that these states and localities did not even consider because they knew the measures would be rejected. That deterrent effect will no longer be there.

State legislative gerrymandering has already decimated black political power in Southern legislatures, and the mass of voter suppression measures that the Supreme Court’s Shelby Country ruling has already begun to unleash in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and elsewhere, will cripple black voters’ and legislators’ power even more.

State law also touches almost every aspect of how we live, and Republican legislators have now used their majorities to shape those aspects in accordance with conservative — often ultra-conservative — positions. During 2011-12, some 24 states adopted approximately 135 anti-abortion restrictions, and 43 more so far this year. For example, many red states now require that women’s reproductive rights clinics meet the same standards as hospital surgical centers, forcing a great number of these clinics to close, especially in rural areas. In Ohio, public hospitals may refuse emergency cases from abortion clinics — though Ohio law requires the clinics to have such agreements.

GOP-controlled states have also passed severe anti-union measures, including a right-to-work law in Michigan. North Carolina has drastically cut unemployment benefits. Other states have cut taxes for the rich while raising sales taxes, and many have sabotaged the Affordable Care Act and other safety net measures.

The two other Supreme Court decisions also depend on state action.

The federal benefits granted same-sex couples by the Supreme Court’s Defense of Marriage Act decision are available only for marriages performed in states that legalize gay marriage — 35 states continue to prohibit it. The reprieve granted to university affirmative action programs in Fisher v. University of Texas will depend on how state authorities respond to the requirements newly imposed by the court.

The GOP gerrymanders will also affect the coming 2014 elections, for they could contribute to wiping out the meager House Democratic gains in 2012. In addition, eight democratic senators from states that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won easily in 2012 are either retiring or are vulnerable. If Democrats wind up with five fewer Senate seats, the GOP will control both houses of Congress.

There are some bright spots for Democrats. They have an opportunity to unseat Republican governors in Florida, Maine, Pennsylvania and possibly Ohio and Michigan. The Republican success in blocking background checks for gun purchases may induce at least some of the 91 percent of Americans who support such checks to come out and vote against the Republicans, especially women. Some Senate Republicans who voted “no” have already seen their poll numbers fall. Latino leaders are demanding comprehensive immigration reform, and the intense GOP opposition in both the Senate and the House should encourage Latino turnout. If Republicans also block Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez’s appointment as secretary of labor, that also may draw Latinos to the polls.

Should the Republicans obstruct congressional efforts to repair the damage done to the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court’s Republican majority, which is likely, they could antagonize minority voters even more — propelling them to come out and vote.

The key, of course, is turnout. The Internal Revenue Service’s alleged “targeting” of Tea Party 501(c)(4) applications will almost certainly turn out many Tea Party members. The president’s new climate change measures will also alienate many voters in the coal-producing states.

If the Democrats want to avoid another debacle like in 2010, the party must realize that, when it comes to voting and other vital matters, our Constitution makes the state legislatures more important than Congress. The Democratic Party must overcome its usual midterm torpor and persuade its minority, female, and young supporters not only to vote in 2014 — which they did not do in 2010 — but also not to ignore the down-ballot state elections.

Former Democratic Party leader Howard Dean has recognized this. He has launched a drive to take over four state legislatures, starting with Virginia. But that, obviously, cannot be enough — the whole party must make this a priority.

That effort must begin immediately, for it will not be easy. To get back into the game, Democrats must put together a campaign for these state offices that is organized at both the national and state levels, well-financed and with strong local organizations and good candidates. They must build toward the long term — for the GOP gerrymandering is so extensive that probably the most Democrats can hope for in the 2014 elections is to limit their losses.

But they must start now.

The democracy the Framers bequeathed us requires voters’ constant attention not only to Washington but also to the state capitols. The Republicans know this. So far, however, the Democrats don’t.

 

PHOTO (Insert A): GOP political strategist Karl Rove (L) jokes with Ed Gillespie as they walk to a farewell party for a Bush administration staffer, across from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Aug. 1, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (Insert B): A packed gallery watches as the Texas House of Representatives meets to vote on legislation restricting abortion rights in Austin, Texas July 9, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Stone

PHOTO (Insert C): Supreme Court in Washington. REUTERS/Files

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

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