WASHINGTON – On November 8, 2016, the mood in President Barack Obama’s west wing turned gloomy. Hillary Clinton came up short. The realization grew that Donald Trump would be elected president.
Suddenly David Simas, Obama’s political director, clenched his fist and shouted, “Yes!”
A cautious, cerebral lawyer, Simas was not known for drawing attention. When asked why he was cheering, he said dryly, “We just won a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.”
Inappropriate as it was, the moment of triumph in a relatively small competition reflected growing concern among Democratic leaders all the way up to Obama that their party needed a more assertive strategy for the redistribution struggles to come at the end of the decade. But when the Democrats realized the depths of their plight, they found that learning to think small was easier said than done: hopes for big wins at the state level in 2020, a pivotal year for redistribution, were not fulfilled . Liberal voters showed they were less hungry to win these races than they were ousting Trump.
Now, however, federal competitions like governorships, parliaments, and courts are suddenly moving from the fringes to the center of American politics. And the ongoing dispute over political cards is only one front in a larger conflict: While Trump enforces his false claims about a stolen election in 2020, what was once seen at most as a ten-year scramble for party advantages in the provinces of the government is changing in mind some Democrats, in a seedy battle for the future of American democracy.
“We are in a reckoning moment in America,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said recently during a fundraiser for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a group he founded that became the main site of Obama’s political activity when he was White Left house. “I’m not hyperbolic or alarming. I think our democracy is at stake. “
Appeals for funds on behalf of the Democratic legislature indicate that at least six Republican lawmakers were in Washington, DC, on January 6, and that Republican-led states from Arizona to Georgia passed laws to tighten voting rules. And revelations about Trump’s ad hoc efforts to overthrow the previous presidential election fuel fears that Trump could conspire with GOP lawmakers in a 2020 rematch to unlawfully change the outcome.
“We believe the right wing is signaling a strategy to steal the 2024 elections through state legislatures,” said Daniel Squadron, a former New York state senator whose group The States Project announced 30 million Raising US dollars to support Democratic candidates in state parliaments in 2022.
It remains to be seen, however, whether such dire warnings will move voters. It has proven daunting to sell ordinary Democrats over the importance of offices like the Senator or the State Supreme Court. During the 2020 campaign cycle, donors showered Amy McGrath, a doomed Democratic Senate candidate from Kentucky, with $ 96 million, the $ 51 million that the Democratic Party’s national committee for supporting candidates for parliamentary seats in all 50 states dwarfed. And Democrats tend to suffer disproportionately from “roll-off,” a phenomenon in which voters fail to fill out their ballots and withhold their votes from candidates at the end of the ballot paper.
“It feels a lot like climbing up a hill, pushing a rock while your arms melt,” said Amanda Litman, a member of the liberal group Run for Something, which recruits young people to run for state and local office.
Gaby Goldstein, co-founder of Sister District, a grass-roots organization that supports progressive candidates in state legislative elections, noted that conservatives have been mobilizing for state politics for decades. “I always say that Democrats are late for the party,” she said.
The Democrats’ belated interest in lower-tier races stemmed from their bloody experience in 2010, when Republicans rode a backlash against Obama to oust hundreds of Democratic incumbents nationwide. With just $ 30 million, Republicans flipped 680 parliamentary seats and 20 chambers, a staggering victory that has enabled them to redraw election cards and cement their power over these states – and their congressional delegations – for a decade.
“The Democrats were frankly unprepared for this cycle,” said Kelly Ward Burton, who chaired the Democrats’ campaign committee at the time. As President of Holder’s redistribution committee, Burton works closely with several Democratic campaign groups in hopes of an outcome other than the current redistribution round.
Partly tough politics and part good government activism, the groups’ strategy was to break open GOP “trifectas” whenever possible – to reduce the number of states where Republicans have full control of the redistribution process because they hold both governorship and the majorities in both legislatures hold chambers. They also ask candidates for state and federal office to support themselves for “a fair redistribution that ends map tampering and creates truly representative districts,” a pursuit that sometimes conflicts with more partisan goals.
In the midst of the current redistribution brawl, the results of these democratic efforts are mixed.
The long-battered Democratic campaign committee became a force under new leadership in 2016, hiring the party to fill six chambers in the 2018 midterm elections. Since 2017, the Democrats have turned 10 gubernatorial offices inside out, including on the battlefields of Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and captured seven seats on the state Supreme Court. Five states have passed bipartisan redistribution reforms and placed map-drawing in the hands of independent commissions.
But the blue wave that the Democrats were counting on in 2020 never washed ashore. Although Democratic groups have spent record sums trying to win back GOP-owned state houses, their party ended worse last year, losing both New Hampshire houses. As a result, not only did Republicans retain control of prices like the Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin legislatures, but they also have the power to create maps for 187 congressional districts while the Democrats determine the fate of only 75.
As a result, Democrats’ hopes of keeping the House of Representatives could be based on legal challenges to cards already approved by Republican-headed states. And a 2019 Supreme Court ruling, which places biased claims outside the jurisdiction of federal courts, ensures that state courts will be the main arena for such lawsuits.
In 2019, the Democrats lost a crucial contest for the Wisconsin State Supreme Court with less than 6,000 votes, cementing the panel’s Conservative majority. But the election of liberal judges in North Carolina and Ohio has at least given Holder’s group and other liberal groups allied with it a chance to win in court what Democrats cannot achieve in Republican-dominated parliaments.
Elegant moods give way to the demands of powerful politics. Many Democrats hailed the aggressive gerrymandering in Illinois, where cards approved by Governor JB Pritzker could get them at least one extra seat in the House of Representatives, and they are pushing for a similar approach in New York, where a Democratic super majority could try to find their way to conquest so many four seats are currently held by Republicans.
None of this is lost to the Republicans. “Democrats pretend to be for ‘fair cards’ but they take advantage of whatever advantage they get,” said Andrew Romeo, a spokesman for the Republican governance committee.
But Democratic gerrymandering could backfire, warned Adam Kincaid, head of the National Republican Redistricting Trust. In several Democratic-controlled states, they have drawn new districts with only a slight partisan tendency, which could make them vulnerable in the event of a Republican surge. “It seems like the Democrats are distributing their voters to cover more territory,” he said.
And as Democrats prepare for a difficult 2022 mid-term election that will be recognized by most, the missed opportunities of 2020 and earlier election cycles are popping in the rearview mirror.
“It was a really bad day in the statehouses when the Republicans won these races,” said David Pepper, a past chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and author of a new book on state legislatures. “Almost as if Trump had won.”
In 2022, the Democrats are focused on overturning several of the state legislatures that had been enticingly out of reach after 2020 – mostly Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In North Carolina and Wisconsin they are simply trying to fend off the Republican super majorities. They also have to defend narrow majorities in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota and Nevada and could be haunted by economic worries and the grim approval ratings of President Joe Biden.
Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislature Campaign Committee, admitted the rocky terrain but said new maps in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania could offer opportunities.
“We are very clear about what can happen to the voters,” she said, but she insisted, “If we have good races, we can win on difficult terrain.”
The Gerrymandering explosion after the 2010 Republican rampage meant few seats were truly competitive. Charles Nuttycombe, an analyst on state general elections, has calculated that between 2018 and 2021, only 15% of state elections were decided by 10 percentage points or less.
“The bigger story here is that the Democrats are kind of at a dead end and I don’t know how to overcome the structural drawbacks they are facing,” said Michael J. Behm, a lobbyist who watches parliamentary elections.
Obama’s help alone cannot be a big boost. He has participated in several fundraisers and virtual town halls hosted by Holder’s group, and he supported 21 candidates for the Virginia House of Representatives. Five of them lost their seats when the Republicans narrowly seized control of the chamber last month.
While reviewing the results in Virginia, Goldstein, the progressive activist, urged her party to develop a message that would inspire voters to go to the end of the ballot.
“We can’t just be against deplorable things,” she said. “We absolutely have to share a vision of the world that is exciting for people.”