Forget the Georgia 6th: To regain power, Democrats need to focus on the long game — starting with these six races

Never mind Jon Ossoff and the long-shot "blue wave" of 2018. These six governor's races could turn the tide

Published May 2, 2017 8:59AM (EDT)


There is an extraordinarily interesting election on the horizon next month. It is not the one taking place in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.

On June 13 Virginia voters will select their Democratic and Republican nominees for governor, a successor to a term-limited Democrat, longtime Clinton rainmaker Terry McAuliffe. Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is the GOP favorite, after he nearly toppled Sen. Mark Warner in 2014. Democrats have a tighter contest: Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has the backing of the state establishment; former Rep. Tom Perriello has endorsements from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

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Why does this race matter so much? This will be a crucial election when it comes to eventual redistricting that is expected to take place after the 2020 Census. The census may be more than three years away, but the governor whom Virginians elect next fall is the one who will be in office when new congressional and state legislative maps are drawn in 2021. Six elections in the next 19 months — beginning this fall in Virginia and then next November in Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — will largely determine whether Republicans once again have a free hand to draw all-important district lines in swing states throughout the next decade.

That’s right: The battle for 2020 redistricting — and all the advantages that mapmaking confers for an entire decade — could well be decided by Election Day in November 2018. By 2020, it will be over.

Democrats and progressives — excited by Jon Ossoff’s near-victory in Georgia and significant gains in Kansas’ fourth district, tantalized by next month’s special election in Montana and giddy over the retirement of a veteran GOP moderate in a Florida district that’s trending blue — feel momentum ahead of the 2018 midterms. They’re dreaming of a wave that returns them control of the House of Representatives next year and provides a powerful check on President Donald Trump.

They’re dreaming the wrong dream. Thanks in large part to the GOP gerrymander of 2011, Republicans have a significant built-in advantage. Most experts suggest Democrats would need to win by double digits the aggregate House vote — considering all the votes for House of Representatives seats — even to have a 50-50 chance at taking the chamber. That’s the kind of wave Democrats need to materialize. It’s more like a blue tsunami.

Of course, despite Democratic enthusiasm, there may not be any wave at all: The latest Pew Research Center poll indicates that Democrats’ favorability rating has actually declined 6 percentage points since January. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, meanwhile, shows Democrats with just a 4-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot (after respondents were asked if they would support an unnamed Democrat or Republican for a seat). No matter what Democrats think of the Trump administration’s first 100 days, there’s been little actual movement in their direction.

Democrats have a choice: They can go all in on the House in 2018. Or they can recognize that any return to power involves a long-term, multipart process with no quick fix in any single electoral cycle. The challenge before Democrats now is what will be the state of play for the next decade. That’s why those six governor's races could shape the next decade of American politics — at both the national and state level — and why they ought to be considered more important than potential feel-good special-election wins.

Take a look at Virginia to gain a sense of this long game. Virginia Republicans, who drew these lines, already hold an overwhelming majority in the state's House of Delegates. With 66 Republicans to 34 Democrats, it’s nearly a 2-to-1 edge. The Republicans have a slender advantage in the state Senate as well. If Gillespie wins, he would cement the GOP’s 26th state trifecta (control of the governor’s office and both legislative chambers) and ensure veto-proof command over 2021 redistricting.

Democrats have made significant progress in Virginia — and have tended to win key statewide races when district lines are not a factor. The state has two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor and voted blue in the last three presidential elections. But Republicans wielded the pen so effectively in 2001 that they control two-thirds of the state house and congressional districts. The election next fall will go a long way toward determining whether that advantage holds for another 10 years.

How did this happen? Democrats fell asleep on redistricting in 2010. It was a costly nap. Republicans, meanwhile, launched an audacious and extraordinarily successful strategy called Redmap and reinvented the gerrymander. They raised $30 million to capture control of state legislatures, largely in blue and purple states like Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Even more important, they ensured that their party had the only seats at the table when the boundaries were surgically crafted with the help of big data and sophisticated new mapping technologies. It was money well spent. Republicans dominate all 12 legislatures in those competitive states — as well as hold 56 of the 79 congressional seats.

Sure, Democrats sit just 24 seats away from a House majority. But the maps are the GOP firewall. You need not take my word for it: GOP strategists came right out and boasted of this in 2012, when Democratic House candidates won 1.4 million more votes nationwide, but Republicans retained the chamber. If Democrats can’t make gains in those six key swing states — where, again, they have gained zero seats in the last three elections, despite their candidates' often receiving more statewide votes — it is nearly impossible to find a path to flipping 24 seats. The Center for Politics at the University of Virginia has the best district-by-district guide to all 435 House seats — and it now has exactly one GOP-held seat leaning in the Democrats’ direction in 2018, after Sunday’s announcement that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen would not seek re-election in Florida’s 27th Congressional District, a district in Miami-Dade County that Hillary Clinton carried easily even while losing the state.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and eager partisans of all stripes will tell you that Democrats' winning the House is possible. Don’t forget that Pelosi vowed the same thing last fall. Most of them are fundraising off your wishful thinking. Some observers in the media will tell you it’s geography and not the maps, as if all the Democrats in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District had magically sorted themselves from these lines to these lines  in 2010. Democrats also controlled state legislatures in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin at the start of 2010 before redistricting occurred. They have not sniffed control since, despite often carrying the statewide vote. That’s not geography or a coincidence, either.

Over the past three congressional election cycles on these maps, Democrats have flipped exactly one seat in these key six states. One. That seat, a 2016 pickup in Virginia, did not turn blue because Democrats organized and ousted an unpopular Republican. It changed hands because a federal court discovered an unconstitutional racial gerrymander and ordered a redrawn map.

Before you send more money into Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, ponder these numbers:


Statehouse before 2010 election: 65 Democrats, 42 Republicans
After 2010 election: 63 Republicans, 47 Democrats
After 2012: 59 Republicans, 50 Democrats
After 2014: 63 Republicans, 47 Democrats
After 2016: 63 Republicans, 47 Democrats
Senate 2016: 27 Republicans, 11 Democrats
Congress: 9 Republicans, 5 Democrats

Number of seats swung on these maps this decade: 0


General Assembly before 2010 election: 53 Democrats, 46 Republicans
After 2010 election: 59 Republicans, 40 Democrats
After 2012: 60 Republicans, 39 Democrats
After 2014: 65 Republicans, 34 Democrats
After 2016: 66 Republicans, 33 Democrats
Senate 2016: 24 Republicans, 9 Democrats
Congress: 12 Republicans, 4 Democrats

Number of seats swung on these maps this decade: 0


Statehouse before 2010 election: 104 Democrats, 98 Republicans
After 2010 election: 112 Republicans, 91 Democrats
After 2012: 110 Republicans, 93 Democrats
After 2014: 119 Republicans, 84 Democrats
After 2016: 121 Republicans, 81 Democrats
State Senate 2016: 34 Republicans, 16 Democrats
Congress: 13 Republicans, 5 Democrats

Number of seats swung on these maps this decade: 0


Statehouse before 2010 election: 50 Democrats, 45 Republicans
After 2010 election: 60 Republicans, 38 Democrats
After 2012: 60 Republicans, 39 Democrats
After 2014: 63 Republicans, 36 Democrats
After 2016: 64 Republicans, 35 Democrats
Senate 2016: 20 Republicans, 13 Democrats
Congress in 2016: 5 Republicans, 3 Democrats

Number of seats swung on these maps this decade: 0


Statehouse before 2010 election: 76 Republicans, 44 Democrats
After 2010 election: 81 Republicans, 39 Democrats
After 2012: 74 Republicans, 46 Democrats
After 2014: 81 Republicans, 38 Democrats
After 2016: 79 Republicans, 41 Democrats
Senate 2016: 25 Republicans, 15 Democrats
Congress in 2016: 16 Republicans, 11 Democrats

Seats swung on these maps this decade: 0


House of Delegates after 2009: 58 Republicans, 39 Democrats
After 2011: 67 Republicans, 32 Democrats
After 2013: 67 Republicans,  33 Democrats
After 2015: 66 Republicans, 34 Democrats
Senate 2015: 21 Republicans, 19 Democrats
Congress in 2016: 7 Republicans 4 Democrats

Seats swung this decade: 1, after a court-ordered 2016 redrawing over unconstitutional maps

Even if the Democrats ride their dream wave back to control of the U.S. House, these numbers aren’t likely to budge. They have barely budged this decade — and that includes, as you see, in the big Democratic year of 2012. But if Democrats can win those governor’s races, they will get immediate power over maps that the party is unlikely to attain any other way.

Democrats can cover the roulette board and hope for a miracle. Or they can focus on six governor's races. After all, of the 25 Republican-held congressional seats in Pennsylvania and Ohio, exactly one elected official had a margin of victory within single digits in 2016. This year’s trendy target is the “Panera District," meaning suburban Republican seats like Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, full of higher-educated voters who find Trump unappealing. That’s why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee poured money into Georgia’s 6th Congressional District and not Kansas’ 4th: Both Republican congressmen who joined Trump’s Cabinet — creating the need for a special election — won with upward of 60 percent. In Kansas, those voters went for Trump, but Hillary Clinton fought him to a near draw in Georgia’s 4th.

Ossoff, a 30-year-old Democratic newcomer, raised a fortune — $8.3 million by the end of March, and outside groups hoping to color the seat blue added millions more. That spending blitz, however, brought him to only 48 percent of the vote, close to an outright victory but also just 1 percentage point better than Hillary Clinton’s share of the vote in November. These “Panera” seats, perennial targets of Democrats filled with canny survivors like Virginia’s Barbara Comstock and Colorado’s Mike Coffman, will only be more difficult for Democrats to win in a general election with larger Republican turnout. Even if Ossoff wins the runoff election, he’s likely only renting the seat until November 2018.

Ossoff’s $8.3 million, by the way, is more than twice what both Democrats have raised in the Virginia governor's race. The resistance is wasting its money. The road for Democrats to take back the House does not go through special elections; it is a long-term game that starts with governors. In Ohio, the GOP edge in the statehouse is 66 to 33. But Gov. John Kasich is term-limited and Democrats could earn fairer maps by winning that one statewide race for the governorship. In Michigan, Republicans have held the majority in the statehouse for the decade thus far, despite having won fewer statewide votes in 2012, 2014 and 2016.  Again, a term-limited two-term Republican governor opens an opportunity for Democrats to win one race and earn a road to parity. The story is similar in Florida and Wisconsin, as well as Pennsylvania, the one state with an incumbent Democratic governor (but gaping GOP legislative majorities).

Yes, Democrats need a 50-state strategy. They need to compete in special elections and they need to recruit good candidates and rebuild party infrastructure nationwide. But before gambling everything on taking the House for two years, they need to stop the bleeding. Democrats need to score six statewide races in winnable states. They need to have an election cycle that’s focused on the redistricting to come. That’s the difference between having a seat at the table after 2020 — or another long decade in the wilderness.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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