This is how the GOP rigged Congress: The secret plan that handcuffed Obama's presidency, but backfired in Donald Trump

GOP stole the House with old trick in a brilliant modern form. A new book by Salon's editor lays out every detail

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published June 13, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

David Daley   (Paul Specht)
David Daley (Paul Specht)

The Republican Party is in crisis. It's an ongoing story played out in multiple episodes a day in recent weeks, and it's been a growing concern throughout this election cycle.

But the Democratic Party is profoundly broken as well—most notably in the Legislative branch, both in Congress and in state legislatures. After holding the House for four decades, Democrats lost control in the 1994 midterms, and have only held it for four years since then. The 2010 midterm was even more disastrous than 1994, but with an added twist—it was a census year, meaning that the winners that year could gerrymander  themselves into power for a full 10 years. And, of course, that also meant a leg up on controlling the next decade of maps. The Republicans did exactly that in an electoral heist both brazen and dangerous--as a new book by Salon's editor-in-chief David Daley explains.

The power to draw these maps rests largely with state legislatures, and the GOP's margins there have not been seen since before the Great Depression. There's a reason why--a plan called REDMAP, as Daley explains in "Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy," published by W.W.Norton/Liveright this week. But as Daley writes, the Democrats aren't just badly outnumbered, they are seemingly clueless about the basic nature of the battle they're involved in, much less what to do about it. Unless that's fixed—and fast—the Democrats will continue to be at least as broken as the Republicans, for as far as the eye can see.

What will it take for the Democrats to wake up?  That's impossible to say. But Daley lays out everything we need to know about what's happened to steal our democracy—from the grand plan to the messy on-the-ground reality in districts across the country—as well as pointing to innovative ways of undoing the damage, not by mirroring GOP dirty tricks, but by making our democracy work better than it has in the past. 

It's as crucial a book as any that will appear this election cycle, but with a much longer time horizon. And so Salon sat down to talk with Daley to explore the most important overlooked political story of the day--or the decade.

The central focus of your book is the GOP REDMAP redistricting plan, which took the ancient practice of gerrymandering to a level never seen before. So, to start out, how did it come about and what made it so strikingly different from what happened before?

You can trace gerrymandering back to the late 1700s, but the plan that the Republicans executed in 2010 and 2011 reinvented this game in a completely modern and transformative way. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, it was the fourth presidential election out of five in which the Democrats won the popular vote. They took 23 of 33 Senate seats and opened up a supermajority. They held the House. The future demographics looked scary. And when you look again at the Election Night coverage, the leading Republican intellectuals were wringing their hands about the GOP's future as a national party. But then a handful of brilliant Republican strategists centered around the Republican State Leadership Committee hit on a plan: They recognized that 2010 was a "zero year," and that zero years reverberate through the rest of the decade because that's when every Congressional district and state legislative district gets redrawn. 

The two key tacticians behind REDMAP (for Redistricting Majority Project), Chris Jankowski and Ed Gillespie, recognized that if they crafted a plan to flip state legislative chambers in enough key states--especially purplish states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Florida and Wisconsin--that they could control redistricting in these states and redraw both the state and federal lines in a way that built the Republicans a firewall in the House of Representatives. They spent $30 million on state races and blew these Democratic incumbents out of the water, and recaptured control of all those state capitals. Then, they provided state legislators with the mapping, technological and legal help to draw impregnable lines. It worked exactly as planned, helped along by the fact that 2010 was a year of Democratic malaise and low turnout. This is the biggest political heist, and the biggest political bargain, in modern memory. Linda McMahon spent $100 million on two losing Senate races in Connecticut. For a third of that, the GOP locked in control of the House for a decade--and took dozens of previously competitive races off the board, where they would have had to have spent more money. 

In the past, gerrymandering had been an incumbent protection racket, a means of mischief, something that both parties did. What the Republicans did in 2010 and 2011--helped along by Citizens United, a brilliant plan, and technological advances that made map-making amazingly precise--turned gerrymandering into a blunt-force weapon for partisan control.

As you point out, Karl Rove pre-announced the plan in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, but even now there's significant resistance to accepting what the GOP pulled off. What's the basis of that resistance and how does it miss or obscure what's happened since 2010?

You're right: Karl Rove laid out the entire plan in great specificity in his March 2010 Wall Street Journal piece. He made it very clear that when you draw the lines, you make the rules--and in flashing neon lights made clear that the Republicans intended to do exactly that. The Democrats not only lacked the imagination or vision to come up with a plan like this, but they failed to defend against it even when the playbook was published in one of the biggest newspapers in the country. Jankowski told me he couldn't believe that he never ran into Democratic groups spending money in these states that fall. Steve Israel, who took over the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after the 2010 debacle, told me the Democrats "whistled past the graveyard." It was severe political malpractice, and it had the consequence of handcuffing Obama's agenda in Congress.

The political "smart set" in the media and the capital, however, has long resisted the idea that gerrymandering matters. They see it as part of the game. They look for a counterintuitive way to explain it, like the "Big Sort" theory that like-minded people choose to live around like-minded people. The Republicans knew better--they knew that drawing the lines meant making the rules. They knew that staring down a demographic barrel, they had to change the rules if they wanted to win. And the amount of energy and money the brightest minds in the party spent on this in 2010 and then again drawing the lines in 2011 should help put the "Big Sort" theory to bed. We have been sorted.

The smart set that denies this also doesn't understand how profoundly the technology changed between 2000 and 2010, let alone between 1990 and 2010. In 1990 and even in 2000, the computers and the data sets were primitive. In some cases, they were still laying out actual parchment maps and using markers. By 2010, programs like Maptitude--and all of the public data sets that are available, as well as private data sets that the parties can purchase and add on to Maptitude--made it as easy as clicking a mouse to shift a line one block in any direction. And the data was so good, and our partisanship had hardened in such a way as to make it pretty clear how individual blocks vote, that you could see how shifting the lines would likely shift the results. As a result, you can draw districts so precisely that they might even look like competitive 51-49 districts, but they can still be reliable partisan performers. It is a completely different world. The Republicans know this. The Democrats and the media are still catching up.

In setting out to win key state legislative races in 2010, the GOP employed extraordinary methods. One example you cite is David Levdansky, in Pennsylvania's 39th district. What can you tell me about him, his district, and the race that was run to unseat him?

The Democrats held control of the state house in Pennsylvania by one vote in 2010. REDMAP targeted a handful of Democrats, including Levdansky, so the GOP would control the entire legislature and the governor's office, thus having the only voice on the new maps. Levdansky had been first elected in 1984 to this district of working-class steel towns outside Pittsburgh. He'd been a labor organizer and had risen to be a powerful voice on tax and budget issues. The RSLC and some other groups on the ground in Pennsylvania flooded the race with negative ads in the last month of the race. Every day for the final three weeks, it seems like the entire district was hit with another piece of negative mail. I went to visit Levdansky and he pulled out his file of about two dozen hit pieces, many of them misleading but still really effective with voters in an economically difficult year. He told me that the ads were so damaging that he almost wouldn't have voted for himself either. He estimates well over $150,000 was spent in those last weeks against him, which was more than what he'd planned to spend on the whole campaign. That's another of the really scary things about REDMAP--it imports big-money, negative strategies into super-local races. But it worked. They knocked him out by 100 or so votes, took control of the entire redistricting process, and produced in Pennsylvania what some have called the gerrymander of the century.

What was the overall impact in Pennsylvania? What was the GOP able to accomplish, and how? And how did that compare to other states you looked at, such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin? 

The impact in Pennsylvania was huge. In the first election run on the new maps, in 2012, Democratic congressional candidates received 100,000 more votes than Republican candidates. But Republicans won 13 of the 18 seats. In other words, 51 percent of the vote equated to 28 percent of the seats. Sam Wang, a terrific elections analyst at Princeton, ran the numbers on this and said the statistical odds of that vote leading to that distribution of seats was one in 1,000. So it means it is worth looking at the lines. What they did was simple: they packed the Democrats into five seats around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and it turned all the surrounding districts Republican. In Philadelphia, for example, Chaka Fattah won in 2012 with more votes than any Democrat in the country, some 300,000. Had those voters been apportioned elsewhere, of course, it would have made neighboring districts more competitive. The five Democrats won with more than 60 percent of the vote; two of them won with over 80 percent. Or look at it this way: No one ticket-splits any more, so you can compare presidential votes across recent years as a pretty reliable partisan index. Obama wins Pennsylvania by roughly the same margin in 2008 and 2012. In 2008, that was enough to elect 12 Democratic congressmen. In 2012, it generated five. What changed in between? The lines. To buy that this is the Big Sort means believing that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania Democrats sorted themselves into those districts between 2008 and 2012. It's not what happened. 

Race didn't play a major role in Pennsylvania, but things were different in North Carolina--and there was a history going back to the 1990 redistricting cycle, with Republicans using the Voting Rights Act to get rid of white Democrats. What happened there over those three cycles, from the 1990 cycle through the 2010 one?

The Republican dominance of Congress was obtained through a two-part strategy. In the early 1990s, they used the Voting Rights Act as a pretense to shoehorn Democrats into a handful of districts in Southern states. This had the terrific impact of expanding African-American representation in Congress. It also -- as the Republicans well knew -- handed themselves nearly every other district in these states. It was called the "unholy alliance," as in many states, black leaders understandably interested in expanding their ranks in important positions worked with Republicans who were eager to make the trade of more minority districts for fewer Democratic districts. This strategy helped give Republicans the House in 1994. (Ben Ginsberg, the Republican lawyer who helped design this strategy, called it "Project Ratfuck" to the New Yorker in the 1990s, giving me the title of the book.) Throughout the 1990s, it led to the virtual extinction of white Democrats in the South. A state like North Carolina, which had eight Democrats and four Republicans in 1992, flip-flopped to 8-4 Republican in 1994 and never really looked back. The lines are so strongly tilted there now that it is 10-3 Republican, despite being a purplish state. 

In Michigan, you traveled the entire boundary of one district--Michigan 14. What did you see and learn in the process? And how did that deepen your understanding of the problem? 

Michigan's 14th is one of the most artfully designed districts in America. The goal is to link Pontiac and Detroit, and pack as many African-American voters into this one district as possible, in order to make the surrounding districts more Republican. I drove the 150 miles around the border, turn by turn, and it's amazing to see in person. It's easy to look at these maps and think that they look ridiculous or like some comical Rorschach test. When you see them in person, you understand just how precisely they are carved and what's on each side of these lines. The district line, in many cases, is the line between hope and despair in these neighborhoods. Time and again, it would literally be the other side of the tracks. You'd take two turns, drive a half-mile, and the schools and the houses were completely different. The lines in the road would be painted on one side, and not on the other. There would be these little quirks, like this tiny notch on the very top of the district, which is actually the Pontiac region's garbage dump, the cherry on top of all this. As I drove it, it was as if I was seeing all these little pranks the mapmakers inserted -- except that there's nothing funny about it. The result of all this is to resegregate us and disenfranchise us, and to invalidate the idea that the side with the most votes ought to win. Instead, we've artfully drawn the lines to ensure the opposite.

In the chapter on Wisconsin, you describe a concept applied to challenge the extreme gerrymandering there, "the efficiency gap," as a way to measure the impacts of "cracking" and packing" districts. So, what are "cracking" and "packing", how does the efficiency gap help to grapple with them, and why is it so potentially important? 

"Cracking" is to divide a city in pieces in order to divide a partisan stronghold. That's what the GOP did in Asheville, North Carolina, for example, dividing an artsy enclave into two districts to minimize Democratic votes. That resulted in the end of Heath Shuler's career, a conservative Democrat, and led to the election of Mark Meadows, a Tea Party extremist who made the parliamentary move that took down John Boehner -- so it's an example of how the extreme gerrymandering has shifted the kind of people elected to Congress and, ironically, made it more difficult for the GOP leadership to control the caucus they created. "Packing" is what they did in Pennsylvania to Chaka Fattah, for example, adding so many Democratic votes to one district that it "bleaches" the surrounding districts.

But there is a fascinating lawsuit in Wisconsin right now and the "efficiency gap" is the political science measurement that's being used to take aim at partisan gerrymandering. Essentially, if gerrymandering is the art of wasting the other party's votes by cracking or packing their base, this measures the number of wasted votes by the number of total votes, to derive a sense of what the outcome would have been had both sides had an equal number of wasted votes. There's a reason why this matters. The Supreme Court has refused to strike down districts based on partisan gerrymanders because the justices had not found a legal standard to measure it -- but Anthony Kennedy has suggested that he is open to seeing one that might work. The lawyers in this case, I think, are aiming to show Kennedy a justiciable standard. It could become an important case.

In Iowa you describe a counter-example of how partisan politics can be kept to a minimum, which relies on a professionalized nonpartisan process. In Arizona, you describe an effort to move more in the direction that encountered some significant problems. What makes Iowa work, and what does Arizona have to do to become more like Iowa?

Iowa is the redistricting unicorn -- it's a state where the politicians of both parties agreed to take the politics out of redistricting, turned it over to professionals and nonpartisans, and somehow no one interferes or tries to game the system. Honest redistricting has become an important part of the political culture there, and the politicians -- and the voters -- are proud of that. In Arizona, which had been gerrymandered toward the GOP for decades, a coalition of good-government reformers won a ballot referendum to install an independent commission to handle redistricting. The trouble is that it ended up becoming just as partisan, and may have actually moved the chicanery deeper behind closed doors. If you don't have a political culture of trust, and some really clear guidelines and lots of transparency, a commission can become just another smoke-filled room.

In your last chapter, you survey different facets of what can be done to fight back against what the GOP has done--and even more, to create a more voter-centered, voter-sensitive system. What are the most important things to prioritize? And who should we be listening to and learning from?

This is the real challenge. We can't simply think the Democrats will fix this. Their 2020 strategy is to try and replicate what the GOP did in 2010, only on the Republicans' maps and with a lot less money and no element of surprise. That is a plan that will ensure failure -- and make our politics uglier and more expensive. The good thing is that the voters understand how unfair this is -- voters of both parties -- and there is wide agreement on the importance of fair elections and untilted maps when you can get this to a ballot referendum. Redistricting reform wins big in red states and blue states -- recently in California, Arizona, Florida, Ohio, for example.

I do believe that Justice Kennedy will be intrigued by the efficiency gap -- there are a lot of smart minds trying to craft a justiciable standard that will appeal to him, and if it is not the Wisconsin case, there are others in the works. But the people at FairVote are brilliant on these issues as well. What they understand is that we don't want either party drawing maps in a way that rigs the system. The Republicans did it this last time, and brilliantly. But the answer is not for Democrats to tip it the other way. It is to have fair elections in which we're represented accurately and responsibly, by public officials who work together in a spirit of solving problems. They have some electoral reforms that sound very different when you first encounter them -- ranked-choice voting, multi-member districts -- but which make so much sense and take so much of the chicanery out of the system that we really need to take a serious look at them. Many cities are, and this may be something that gains momentum.

But it may also be that the Republicans have interest in fixing the system as well. After all, this last gerrymander locked in control, but it changed the nature of the party base and led to a very extreme House Freedom Caucus and took the ability to manage the caucus and the Congress away from the establishment. It's among the factors that created the conditions under which Donald Trump could walk away with the party. It might take not only the public, but members of both parties of good conscience, to work together to find a fix. We ignore these issues at our extreme peril -- as we have seen these last several years of inaction and decay.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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