The Lessons of 2010

After the Democratic debacle in the last midterms, no one can ignore the power of holding the redistricting pen.

WASHINGTON - MARCH 23: U.S. President Barack Obama (C) signs the Affordable Health Care for America Act during a ceremony with fellow Democrats in the East Room of the White House March 23, 2010 in Washington, DC. The historic bill was passed by the House of Representatives Sunday after a 14-month-long political battle that left the legislation without a single Republican vote. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
National Journal
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Aug. 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

In real es­tate, the three most im­port­ant things are said to be “loc­a­tion, loc­a­tion, and loc­a­tion.” In polit­ics, it might well be “tim­ing, tim­ing, and tim­ing.” As we ap­proach the 2014 midterm elec­tions, the Sen­ate’s Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity is tee­ter­ing on the edge, but the House is just an af­ter­thought, with little chance that it will change con­trol or dir­ec­tion. Had it not been for the Demo­crat­ic de­bacle in 2010, we might well be talk­ing about an en­dangered Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity in the House this year rather than a GOP lock.

Obama signs the Af­ford­able Care Act in March 2010. (Win Mc­Namee/Getty Im­ages)Re­call that Re­pub­lic­ans them­selves had been through pun­ish­ing elec­tions in 2006 and 2008; the GOP was in pretty aw­ful shape head­ing in­to 2009. Con­versely, the fore­cast for Demo­crats at that point looked aw­fully good. Then the bot­tom fell out for Demo­crats in 2009 and 2010, largely due to the drop in Pres­id­ent Obama’s job-ap­prov­al num­bers and the ra­dio­activ­ity of health care re­form, and, to a less­er ex­tent, House pas­sage of cap-and-trade cli­mate le­gis­la­tion. Un­for­tu­nately for Demo­crats, the re­versal of for­tune happened in a midterm elec­tion, when far more gov­ernor­ships and state le­gis­lat­ive seats are up than in the pres­id­en­tial cycle. Even more im­port­ant, it was the last elec­tion be­fore state le­gis­lat­ors re­drew maps for con­gres­sion­al and state seats for the com­ing dec­ade.

Tim Storey of the Na­tion­al Con­fer­ence of State Le­gis­latures, who has spent more than two dec­ades study­ing state-level elec­tions, points out that there were his­tor­ic­al danger signs: Demo­crats had gained state le­gis­lat­ive seats in three straight elec­tions lead­ing in­to 2010, and neither party since the 1920s had gained seats in four straight elec­tions. Demo­crats were set up for a loss, and, boy, did they have one. The party not only saw a net loss of six gov­ernor­ships (ac­tu­ally los­ing 11 but gain­ing five), it also suffered a net loss of 725 state le­gis­lat­ive seats, which was, ac­cord­ing to Storey, more than either party has gained or lost since 1966. Re­pub­lic­ans picked up 23 state le­gis­lat­ive cham­bers (plus, Ore­gon moved from a Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity to a tie) in 2009 and 2010. Demo­crat­ic state Sen­ate cham­bers went Re­pub­lic­an in Alabama, Louisi­ana, Maine, Min­nesota, Mis­sis­sippi, New Hamp­shire, New York, North Car­o­lina, and Wis­con­sin. State Houses flipped from blue to red in Alabama, Col­or­ado, In­di­ana, Iowa, Louisi­ana, Maine, Michigan, Min­nesota, Montana, New Hamp­shire, North Car­o­lina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wis­con­sin.

With their pres­id­ent’s pop­ular­ity tank­ing, this was the worst time for Demo­crats to face an elec­tion. The day after, Storey wrote proph­et­ic­ally that “2010 will go down as a de­fin­ing elec­tion that will shape the na­tion­al polit­ic­al land­scape for at least the next 10 years. The GOP, in dra­mat­ic fash­ion, finds it­self now in the best po­s­i­tion for both con­gres­sion­al and state le­gis­lat­ive line-draw­ing that it has en­joyed in the mod­ern era of re­dis­trict­ing.”

Of course there is more to the par­tis­an dis­tri­bu­tion of con­gres­sion­al and state le­gis­lat­ive seats than just ger­ry­man­der­ing. The Vot­ing Rights Act, for ex­ample, has the ef­fect of con­cen­trat­ing large num­bers of minor­ity voters in dis­tricts that make ad­ja­cent dis­tricts less hos­pit­able for Demo­crats, even when Re­pub­lic­ans are not in a po­s­i­tion to help the pro­cess along. Pop­u­la­tion-sort­ing also plays a role: Ac­cord­ing to our num­ber crunch­ing at The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port, in the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, 60 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing seats got even more Re­pub­lic­an and 76 per­cent of Demo­crat­ic seats got even more Demo­crat­ic — in­de­pend­ent of re­dis­trict­ing. Fur­ther­more, Demo­crats’ res­id­en­tial “clus­ter­ing” in urb­an areas shows no signs of abat­ing; thanks to the bur­geon­ing in-mi­gra­tion of young (and quite so­cially lib­er­al) voters to urb­an set­tings, many cit­ies have ac­tu­ally be­gun to grow faster than their sub­urbs for the first time since the 1920s. This is con­tinu­ing to make Demo­crats’ elect­or­ate even less geo­graph­ic­ally ef­fi­cient for pur­poses of win­ning the House.

All that aside, the fact that Re­pub­lic­ans had the re­dis­trict­ing pens in their hands still made an enorm­ous dif­fer­ence. That Demo­crats won the na­tion­al pop­u­lar vote for the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives in 2012 while just barely chip­ping away at the newly min­ted GOP ma­jor­ity un­der­scores that.

While this year’s midterms won’t change the course set in 2010, what hap­pens in the 2018 and 2020 gubernat­ori­al and state le­gis­lat­ive elec­tions will be huge in es­tab­lish­ing who con­trols re­dis­trict­ing in 2021, and which gov­ernors can veto or in­flu­ence where the lines are drawn. For Demo­crats, those elec­tions will de­term­ine wheth­er they are go­ing to be shut out of con­trolling the House for a second straight dec­ade, or wheth­er there will be a fairer fight for dom­in­ance of the lower cham­ber. Ob­vi­ously, the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment will also be shaped by who­ever wins the pres­id­ency in 2016; how the next pres­id­ent per­forms in the 2018 midterm elec­tion, and her or his pro­spects for reelec­tion in 2020, will likely de­term­ine wheth­er the ter­rain will be tilted to­ward one party or be re­l­at­ively level. But after they saw how much of a dif­fer­ence 2010 made, it’s pretty safe to as­sume that neither side will be caught asleep in these cycles.

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