States Are Battleground in Gerrymandering Wars

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Jim Haadsma isn’t a high-profile Democratic candidate like Amy McGrath, the ex-Marine fighter pilot seeking to upset an incumbent Republican U.S. representative in Kentucky. He’s neither a pathbreaker like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, who’s trying to become the nation's first African-American female governor, nor a national political figure like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who’s skillfully working to hold on in Trump country.

But Haadsma represents an opportunity that’s just as important for the party in 2018 as the conspicuous individual contests: cutting into the huge Republican advantage in state legislatures, which paved the way for gerrymandering congressional and state legislative seats for partisan gain.

The Michigan Democrat is running for a Republican-held statehouse seat in Battle Creek. Michigan is a top target for both parties this year, and the 2020 legislative elections will shape redistricting after the 2020 census.

There are numerous legal challenges to the practice of partisan gerrymandering. But the U.S. Supreme Court ducked the issue this year and may do so again next year, so Democrats are likely to need political victories to reverse their disadvantage.

So they’ve formed the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder and actively supported by ex-President Barack Obama, to counter the Republican redistricting successes. The committee forked over $1.2 million last year to Virginia Democrats, who then picked up 15 statehouse seats and will take control if they win one more next year. They’ve made early payments of about $250,000 to Pennsylvania and North Carolina Democrats, and gave a half-million dollars to a successful candidate for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which could hear redistricting appeals.

Obama, who has stayed out of most political battles since leaving office, cut a video for them, is helping raise more money, and is expected to campaign in selected venues.

The challenges are daunting, as Republicans have brilliantly carved out dozens of congressional seats and hundreds of state legislative districts that favor their candidates. In Ohio, for example, district lines helped Republicans gain a 2-to-1 advantage in the General Assembly and almost a 3-to-1 majority in the Senate. North Carolina Republicans enjoy comparable dominance.

In most states, the legislature draws district lines for its own seats and for the U.S. Congress, subject to approval by the governor. After 2010, Republicans controlled the legislatures and governors’ offices in most major states. Thus, winning governor’s races this year in Republican-held Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and Michigan, as well as keeping Democratic governors in office in Colorado and Pennsylvania, are crucial for Democrats in the redistricting wars.

And capturing more seats in state legislatures either would give them more leverage in redistricting or serve as a check on Republican governors.

The battle in Michigan is especially intense. In Washington it’s seen as a blue state with a purplish hue; Democrats, before 2016, won six straight presidential contests, and over the past 40 years only one Republican has served in the U.S. Senate. At home, however, it looks red; Republicans have been governor for 20 of the past 28 years and have run the state Senate since 1984.

With their control of redistricting, nine of the 14 members of Congress are Republicans, as are 27 of 38 state senators. In the state House of Representatives they hold a 63-to-46 advantage. Republicans have insisted that they didn’t seek partisan gain when they drew new legislative boundaries in 2011. But private emails, revealed last week as part of a federal lawsuit challenging the district maps, showed that they did exactly that.

The politics of gerrymandering are complicated by a petition signed by 425,000 citizens seeking a November ballot referendum taking redistricting away from politicians and creating a bipartisan commission. Republicans and business groups have challenged the petition in the state Supreme Court, where five of the seven members are Republicans.

Caught in the middle are two of those Republican judges, who are running for reelection this year. Throwing the citizens’ initiative off the ballot would be tough to defend in the fall election. Voting to keep it on would alienate the business groups they count on for support.

With the uncertainty of that decision and a potentially tight governor’s race, a big focus of both parties is the state House, where Democrats need to take over nine Republican-held seats to gain control. Haadsma’s race is a must-win for Democrats. The district voted twice for Obama and then for President Donald Trump, while the Republican candidate, John Bizon, now running for the state senate, beat Haadsma by 209 votes in 2016.

In an interview in Battle Creek — the “cereal bowl” of America, where Kellogg’s is headquartered — Haadsma said he thinks that the “desire for change” and the need for a “breaker” on heavy-handed Republican rule will reverse that outcome in November.

He said he expects his opponent, Dave Morgan, who ran unsuccessfully for the seat as a Democrat in 2014, to cling to Trump. Polls show the president’s popularity dropping in the state, which he carried narrowly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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