It's not just the White House in 2020, the power to draw maps is also at stake

Holder was not talking about the 2020 presidential election. He was not talking about a congressional race. He was talking about the nine seats Democrats would need to flip to wrest control of the Texas House of Representatives and gain a voice in the redistricting process.

It's not just the White House in 2020, the power to draw maps is also at stake

“Texas is a place where we have to win,” Holder, who served as attorney general during Barack Obama’s presidency, said last week. “This is doable. This is possible.”

Holder was not talking about the 2020 presidential election. He was not talking about a congressional race. He was talking about the nine seats Democrats would need to flip to wrest control of the Texas House of Representatives and gain a voice in the redistricting process.

While much of the country’s attention is focused on presidential politics, the gerrymandering ruling last week instantly raised the stakes for the nation’s state legislative races, which are often overlooked by voters, but can shape the course of policy from abortion rights to education.


Yet this cycle of legislative elections carries added significance: In most states, the political party that wins control of the legislature gains the power to draw once-a-decade maps setting district boundaries for state and congressional elections after a new census count.

Acutely aware of that prize, which offers a chance to tilt political power further in one party’s favor, Republicans and Democrats are starting campaigns early, knocking on doors and rallying donors with the pitch that a tiny statehouse election in suburban Dallas or coastal Virginia could have national reverberations.

“We’re going to make sure we do everything we can to influence the elections because the future of the party for the next 10 years depends on it,” said Austin J. Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which focuses on electing Republicans to statehouse offices.

Chambers’ party is rushing to defend its gains from 2010, when Republicans swept into power in many state capitols across the country and redrew political maps that secured a decade of political dominance.

Democrats, under intense pressure to make up for years of losses in statehouses and for maps that sealed their disadvantages, are racing to gain enough power to block a new set of gerrymandered maps — or perhaps draw their own. And the Supreme Court’s ruling, clearing the way for more partisan gerrymandering, has only intensified the scramble for state legislative seats all over the country.


“We’re going to be talking about redistricting constantly,” said Joanna Cattanach, a Democrat who is already campaigning for a Dallas-based state House district that is up for election in 2020. “There is an added urgency. There’s a new talking point.”

Gerrymandering is hardly new, but it has vaulted to the top of the political agenda in the last decade as single-party domination in state capitols birthed a set of bizarrely shaped districts meant to protect a vulnerable incumbent, vanquish a political foe or dilute the voting power of the minority party.

In Republican-held Texas, claims that the maps discriminated against black and Hispanic voters were ultimately heard, and mostly rejected, by the Supreme Court. In Maryland, Democrats drew maps that left a Republican congressman without a base of support. And in North Carolina, Republican-drawn maps have been the subject of years of litigation and political fighting.

With the justices’ ruling last week, lawmakers were expected to feel more emboldened in their next round of map drawing after 2020.

“If our party doesn’t maintain the state Senate at a minimum, we know the lines will be gerrymandered outrageously by the Democrats and our likelihood to win legislative and congressional seats in this state may be lost for a decade or more to come,” Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party, said in an email. Minnesota Democrats, who insist that they do not plan to gerrymander, control the governorship and House, and are optimistic about flipping the Senate.


Jessica Post, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to statehouses, said her party was taking a more aggressive approach this cycle, having learned from its string of losses in 2010. Post said Democrats want to win control of at least one legislative chamber in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, and to gain full control of state government in Virginia and Minnesota.

Georgia Democrats are outnumbered 105-75 in the State House, but say they believe they could win that chamber by focusing on suburban districts outside Atlanta and anti-abortion legislation championed by Republicans. In North Carolina, where the Democratic governor does not have a veto over the new maps, Democrats are looking in 2020 to flip one or both legislative chambers to gain a voice in redistricting.

With 29 state legislatures currently dominated solely by Republicans and 18 by Democrats, many are unlikely to change hands during this cycle, and in those states, the campaigns for 2020 elections have yet to gain steam. (Two states, Nebraska and Alaska, do not easily fit the model.) Still, in some states where Republicans are firmly in control of the legislative chambers and seem unlikely to lose it, Democrats have tried a different tack on the political maps: Pushing to remove mapping power from the politicians and turn it over to nonpartisan redistricting committees, similar to those used in California and Arizona.

The fight is playing out more immediately in Virginia, where all of the state’s 140 legislative seats are on the ballot this November and Republicans fear their two-seat majorities in both the Senate and the House of Delegates might evaporate.

There, the current maps are part of the tug-of-war that will decide future ones: Though the state’s political maps were drawn by Republicans, some of those were thrown out by the courts, which found them to be racially gerrymandered. (Racial gerrymandering has been banned by the Supreme Court, while it said it could not weigh in on the partisan equivalent.) The new maps drawn under court order are widely believed to be less favorable to Republicans than the earlier versions.


Months before the election, even the House speaker, Kirk Cox, is considered vulnerable in his district, which was about 63% Republican in maps drawn in 2011 but is now approximately 53% Democrat.

Cox, first elected in 1989, is campaigning like a newcomer. He has been introducing himself to voters by going door-to-door, posting selfies with dogs on his Twitter account and planning a hot dog cookout for residents. He has also warned his supporters that the House was at risk of flipping.

John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, acknowledged that “the House is still very much in play, but it is going to be tougher.”

For Texas Democrats, who have not won a statewide elected office since 1994 and have not held a legislative chamber since the 2002 election, flipping the state House now seems tantalizingly plausible — though still incredibly difficult. The potential payoff is huge: A say in drawing congressional maps for a House delegation that currently numbers 36 and, with the state’s growing population, could increase still more after the next census.

In Texas, as in many states that give their legislatures the authority to draw political maps, control of the State House would not hand Democrats full control over new congressional boundaries; it would merely give them a voice, along with the Republicans, who hold the governor’s office and are expected to maintain control of the state Senate. Still, in states where one party has single-handedly controlled the process, the possibility of having any role holds enormous appeal.


“The Texas congressional delegation is going to pack a huge punch, for good or for ill, in national politics,” said Lydia Bean, a former college professor who is running as a Democrat in a Fort Worth-based state House district.

There are reasons for skepticism about Democrats’ chances. The party has expressed hope before of Texas triumphs — with Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2016 and Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign in 2018 — but come up short. And in order to seize the House majority next year, Democrats will have to hold seats they narrowly won in 2018 and overcome a well-financed Republican Party that has mobilized early and tried to register additional voters.

“For the future of our state, the Republican Party is very, very aware of the threat the Democrats pose in taking over the Texas House,” said state Rep. Matt Shaheen, a Republican from the Dallas suburbs.

Texas Democrats have a road map to follow. In 2018, O’Rourke carried nine Texas House districts still held by Republicans, including Shaheen’s — exactly the number Democrats need to flip the chamber. Democrats are targeting those districts and a handful of others, mostly in urban and suburban areas where demographic changes and an influx of newcomers from other states have boosted the party.

Shaheen’s district, anchored in the affluent Plano area, epitomizes the political shifts in Texas. In 2014, the Democrats did not bother to field a candidate to challenge him. In 2016, Shaheen won by almost 20 percentage points. Last year, Sharon Hirsch, a Democrat and former school worker who had never held office, came within 400 votes of unseating him. Both Hirsch and Shaheen are already campaigning for next year’s election.


“I feel great about our prospects,” Hirsch said.

Not everyone in a heated race for a state legislative job was expected to talk about political maps along the campaign trail. Political strategists and party officials have focused on the issue, particularly as it was fought out in courts in the years after 2010, but for some voters, it has resonated less. Hirsch, whose candidacy could directly affect the Democrats’ role in drawing the political maps in Texas, said she expected to talk more to voters about school funding.

Chambers, who is leading the Republicans’ national effort, projected confidence about his party’s chances. Yes, he conceded, statehouses dominated by Republicans for years are now up for grabs. But he said the leftward shift among Democrats nationally could help Republicans keep moderate suburban voters. And, for now at least, the political maps continue to favor Republicans.

As for Democrats’ dreams of gaining power in places like Texas and Georgia? Chambers chuckled.

“Bring it on,” he said.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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