With its current approval hovering around 14 percent, it’s a fair guess that nearly everyone across the entire political spectrum would like to see a change in Congress. The good news is that in a country as politically divided as ours, where basic, seemingly easily verifiable facts are often in contention, there appears to be at least one kind of change everyone can believe in. But here’s the bad news: this Congress, the one everybody hates? It ain’t goin’ nowhere.
There are a few reasons for this, but for the most part the explanation is two words: “Tea” and “Party.” As Glenn Thrush recently reported, the results of the 2010 elections continue to haunt Democrats — and not only on the federal level. Yes, 2010 was the year that brought us Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor, but it was also that year that introduced us to the likes of Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott and Michigan’s Rick Snyder. Meanwhile, no less than 20 state legislative chambers turned from blue to red, with consequences women and minorities across the country know all too well.
Let’s take North Carolina, for example. Until recently, the state was something of a hub of progressivism in the South, a development that was seen most clearly when it went for Obama in 2008 (and almost again in 2012). Then 2010 happened, and everything changed.
Riding a tidal wave of post-Citizens United campaign cash in 2010 and 2012, North Carolina Republicans won control of both the governorship and the state’s General Assembly, something they hadn’t done since the 19thcentury. And almost as soon as they were sworn in, Republicans unleashed a torrent of hard-right bills on everything from Shariah Law to abortion to women’s nipples (not a typo). Despite the fact that the state’s unemployment rate remains at an awful 8.8 percent — the fifth highest in the country — North Carolina’s new, Tea Party-infused government also gutted the state’s unemployment insurance program, leaving 70,000 unemployed North Carolinians out in the cold.
As Chris Komm and Sue Sturgis have reported, though, state Republicans did not limit themselves to mucking up women’s health and the economy. They also had plans — big plans — to reshape the state’s electorate as much as possible. And here’s where the salience of 2010 comes back into play. Because 2010 was a census year, state Republicans had the opportunity to redraw their state-level and congressional districts. And redraw they did:
The [Republicans’] new maps diluted the impact of minority voters by stuffing African American, Latino, and other Democratic voters into a handful of state and congressional districts that are already minority-controlled. The whiter districts, in turn, got even whiter and more difficult for Democrats to win. The purpose was clear: to ensure that the GOP could continue to be strong on the state level for years to come, even if North Carolinians continue to lean Democratic. The effectiveness of the GOP’s new district lines can be measured in members of Congress. In 2012, nearly 51 percent of North Carolina voters picked a Democrat for U.S. House. But thanks to where those voters had been placed, Republicans won 9 of the state’s 13 House seats.
This same process occurred in states throughout the country (neighboring Virginia was one of the more talked-about examples), with newly sworn-in GOPers seizing the once-in-a-decade chance with predictable enthusiasm. The result? Despite winning more overall votes than Republicans, congressional Democrats never came close to retaking control of the House. In a very real sense, we saw the deferral of the people’s will. Indeed, according to one Republican wonk, Democrats would have to win the congressional popular vote by something on the order of 7 percentage points in order to take back the House.
But while Republican redistricting is certainly partially to blame, political scientists have cautioned against considering it the be-all and end-all of structural GOP advantages. The proclivity of Democratic voters to cluster in urban centers, thus diluting the impact of their respective votes, is also a contributing factor. As Dan Hopkins wrote on the political science blog the Monkey Cage, “It’s not hard to find districts in which the Democratic House candidate takes more than 85% of the vote … But it’s much harder to find contested races where the GOP candidate wins by those margins, suggesting that the Republican House vote is distributed more efficiently across space.”
The likely end result is frightening: a bunch of state legislatures, and a U.S. House of Representatives, that might as well be frozen in amber until the next redistricting round in 2020. Until then, liberals and Democrats will have to focus simply on mitigating the damage — or risk seeing North Carolina become more a harbinger than a cautionary tale.