Ralph Northam’s landslide victory in Virginia governor’s race and Democrats’ stunning gains in other state elections this month have given party activists hope of eroding the GOP’s advantage ahead of the next round of redistricting.
Democrats say part of the reason they don’t control the U.S. House and trail so badly in state legislatures is because the GOP did a masterful job the last time around in drawing districts tailored to Republicans.
Flipping that script ahead of the next round of redistricting, after the 2020 census, is a major focus for Democrats. And it’s a particular passion former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who have launched the National Democratic Redistricting Committee to make more voters aware that redistricting will shape the next decade of politics.
“I think there is a focus on this issue now that there was not before, and I think very frankly that is as a result of our existence and the fact that we have pushed this issue out there,” Mr. Holder said recently on Politico’s “Off Message” podcast. “I think people will be looking in 2021 at the redistricting process in a way they did not in 2011.”
The 2010 midterm elections swept Republicans into governor’s offices and control of state legislatures across the country, with a number of swing states tilting red. That put the GOP in position to control the redrawing of lines in 2011, and they drew maps that ensured continued power for years, packing Democrats into a few districts.
For example, in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker and a Republican assembly wrote the maps, the GOP won more than 60 percent of assembly seats in 2012, despite winning just 47 percent of the cumulative votes. Wisconsin’s maps are currently the subject of a Supreme Court case.
The Associated Press, meanwhile, looked at state electorate breakdowns last year and found four times as many Republican-skewed states as Democratic ones.
“There’s no question that the GOP wave in 2010, just before the next redistricting round, aided Republicans’ electoral efforts at the federal and state level in elections after 2010,” said Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
The effort by Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder is trying to persuade voters and donors to rally around the issue now. They even tied the issue to race, saying in one fundraising email last week that GOP-drawn maps are hurting black voters.
The issue, though, has yet to capture voters’ attention.
“It is hard for a voters to think of redistricting and vote for one candidate as opposed to another candidate,” said Joshua Ulibarri, the pollster for House Democrats in Virginia. “That is different than saying they don’t care about it. They don’t like officials choosing the lines and choosing their voters, but they don’t know the process enough, and it is complicated.”
Mr. Northam and other Democrats tried to raise the issue with Virginia voters ahead of the election this month, en route to massive victories. Mr. Northam won by the largest majority for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in decades, and Democrats flipped control of 16 House seats, putting them within a seat of the majority.
Mr. Ulibarri said the issue is on the minds of activists but most voters are activated by other subjects.
“We didn’t put a single dollar behind a paid communication behind redistricting,” he said. “So no mail, no television, not cable. It just doesn’t drive votes to candidates.”
But with the stakes so high, both parties are paying redistricting a lot of attention.
In the Wisconsin case at the Supreme Court, the justices have been asked to rule on what level of partisanship makes a map unconstitutional. Should they set a new standard, it could change the potency of redistricting as an election issue.
If the court leaves state officials free to draw deeply partisan maps, it will raise the stakes for the next rounds of gubernatorial and statehouse elections.
“With all this in mind, plus the ever-growing divide between in the views of the two parties, the upcoming elections in 2018 and 2020 will be hard fought and probably quite ugly,” Mr. Skelley said.