We all know that the 2010 midterm elections are important. But many voters -- and particularly unenthusiastic, disappointed Democrats -- may not realize just how important this November's vote will be, not just for the next Congress but those in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Not only will this election influence how Congress is composed for years to come; it is also an opportunity for progressives to shift the balance of the Democratic coalition to the left.
The governors and state legislators elected this year will draw the electoral map for the next 10 years as the once-a-decade redistricting process begins in 2011. During the last redistricting in 2001, Republicans had the advantage at the state level and leveraged it to give the GOP a structural advantage in the House of Representatives. Some 25 Democrats lost their seats in 2002 and 2004 due to redistricting; the Republicans' famous 1994 takeover also came on the new map.
Despite two cycles of Republican map-drawing, Democrats managed to reclaim a majority in 2006. In some districts, demographic changes outpaced gerrymandering, allowing Democrats to make gains where Republicans expected to be safe. But Democrats also expanded into Republican territory. This is a testament to good campaigning, but it's also the cause of a frequent progressive problem: the large number of Democrats in Congress who face electoral incentives to pander to conservatives.
Redistricting presents an opportunity to solve this problem directly: Drawing more competitive seats would allow Democrats to expand their majority not just in "safe" districts or Republican strongholds but in balanced seats. Look at voter registration by district: Dozens of Democrats have won seats where Republicans have the advantage, but most Republican districts are just that -- home to Republicans. That's why this redistricting isn't just important for straightforward partisan reasons but for influencing the type of governing coalition that comes out of an election: one dominated by the right side of the Democratic coalition or by the center-left.
Both parties are seeking control of state governments to influence the redistricting process, which is managed by state governments following the census each decade. Democrats came into this cycle with an advantage, controlling a majority of governor's offices and state legislatures, but now 21 of those chambers are in play, along with some 18 state executive positions. While state-level races are less affected by the national feelings about either party, the political effects of a poor economy are felt everywhere, and Democrats are likely to see losses. That's not a recipe for future electoral success, as no less than Karl Rove is happy to point out.
"The GOP gained somewhere between 25 and 30 seats because of the redistricting that followed the 1990 census," President George W. Bush's top strategist recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "Without those seats, Republicans would not have won the House in 1994. ... [Today], moving, say, 20 districts from competitive to out-of-reach could save a party $100 million or more [in campaign spending] over the course of a decade."
Republican groups, including the Republican State Leadership Committee's Redistricting Majority Project and corporate-funded Americans for Prosperity, are focusing on down-ballot races for just that reason, as the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC), and the Democracy Alliance do from the left. Typically, partisans will try to draw districts that cram the opposite parties' voters in as few districts as possible.
Sometimes that means isolating Democratic voters, but it can also result in the creation of majority-minority districts, where black or Hispanic voters are isolated in a single district to the detriment of broader electoral competition. These techniques are why, in 2008, President Barack Obama could win 44 percent of the vote in Texas, but his party only won 38 percent of House seats. It's even worse in Florida, where Obama garnered 48 percent of the vote but the Democrats control 11 of 25 House seats.
While rules vary, in a majority of states, the legislature and the governor approve an updated map of legislative districts intended to meet constitutional one-person, one-vote standards, and in some states, the Voting Rights Act. On Election Day, Democrats will try to ensure they can influence the process by winning as many state chambers as they can. Even if they fail to secure majorities, Democrats can push for a reasonable compromise -- or, more likely, prepare for near inevitable court fights over the new maps by making sure that there is a favorable legislative record of their intentions, which courts must give special consideration. These Democratic state legislators are "the firewall for the rest of the party," DLCC Executive Director Mike Sargeant says.
Right now, it looks like fast-growing, red-leaning states like Texas and Arizona will gain a few seats, while blue states like Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts will lose them. Whether their congressional delegation is growing or shrinking, each state's legislature will face tough decisions. The party that controls the process is more likely to spare its members the ax of an eliminated district or to find an advantageous locale for a new district.
"The politicians get to choose the voters instead of the other way around," Tom Bonier of NCEC says.
Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon was 2003's infamous mid-decade redistricting, where then-House Majority Leader Tom Delay literally went to the Texas House and browbeat the Legislature into changing the court-ordered legislative map to eliminate the seats of six Democratic incumbents. "That was Tom Delay's permanent majority," Texas state Rep. Garnett Coleman says. Coleman, a Democrat, is a veteran of Texas' redistricting fights and is leading his party's efforts to win back the state House -- they're only four seats away from a majority. Forecasters estimate that Texas will add four new congressional seats as a result of the 2010 census.
"Are those going to be Republican or Democratic seats?" asks Media Matters for America President Eric Burns, who worked for former Rep. Chris Bell, a Texas Democrat who lost his seat after the Delay-ordered redistricting. "Ideally they should be competitive seats. [Redistricting] is going to determine the balance of power in Congress for at least a decade."
Not, then, the best Election Day to stay home, or perhaps worse, get to the voting booth and fail to make it down the ballot to your state legislators. Remember: It's not just a decision about next year's vote on the Bush tax cuts, or whatever subject motivates you most. It's a decade of votes on every issue that matters.
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