Gerrymandering did this: How the GOP's redistricting master plan brought us Trumpcare — even though most people hate it

Most Republican House members fear their right-wing base more than they fear the Democrats. It's a toxic combo

Published May 6, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Paul Ryan in the Rose Garden, after the House pushed through a health care bill.   (AP/Evan Vucci)
Donald Trump and Paul Ryan in the Rose Garden, after the House pushed through a health care bill. (AP/Evan Vucci)

House Republicans voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act on Thursday, despite this staggering detail: According to Roper Center poll aggregation, it’s the least popular major law in decades.

How is it possible that the chamber that’s supposed to be most attuned to the people can be so out of touch? One of the most important reasons is the gerrymander -- especially the lethal version unleashed after the 2010 census.

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The key lesson from the repeal vote was this: Despite protests and polls, Republicans believed they were in greater political jeopardy if they failed to repeal Obamacare. When congressional and state legislative districts were redrawn after 2010, as they are every 10 years, Republicans seized the upper hand and used Big Data and sophisticated map-making technology to lock in their gains. The result? Republicans fear losing their extreme base more than anything else.

Democrats are determined to make Republicans pay a steep price in 2018. But can they? The decay within our democracy goes deep, and the power behind these lines is staggering. Democrats will need to garner at least 55 percent of the total vote for Congress in 2018 to have even a 50/50 chance of taking the chamber. That’s no easy task.

It means that 2018 will now present an all-important test: If Democrats are able to win a majority of votes, will they actually come away with power at any level of our government? That we even have to ask such a question -- let alone that the answer is unclear -- should be frightening enough.

Here’s why.

  1. Gerrymandering helped lock in GOP control of Congress. In 2012, Americans re-elected Barack Obama, strengthened the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, and delivered 1.4 million more votes to Democratic House candidates than Republicans. The GOP, however, maintained control of the House, 234-201.

It was an exceptionally rare example of the party with the most votes not getting the most seats -- but it was no fluke. Far from it. It was part of a plan called the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP for short, which is exactly what it created. Republicans set out in 2010 to take control of key legislative chambers in states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, all with an eye toward locking Democrats out of the room and taking complete control of drawing all-important district lines.

Locking Democrats out of the room is literally what Republicans did in Ohio -- where GOP officials moved redistricting headquarters out of the state capitol and into a suite at the Doubletree dubbed the Bunker -- and in Wisconsin, where operatives set up at a Madison law firm and claimed that attorney-client privilege allowed them to shroud the process in secrecy.

Here’s how well it worked: There are 435 House districts. In 2011, Republicans were able to draw 193 of them by themselves. Democrats? Just 44. That’s nearly a five-to-one advantage.

Princeton professor Sam Wang has shown that Republicans likely gained at least 12 seats due to gerrymandering in 2012. Look how the election played out in just a handful of blue states and swing states on these new maps:

  • In Pennsylvania, voters cast 100,000 more votes for Democratic House candidates than Republicans. But by surgically crafting district lines to pack Democrats into as few seats as possible, Republicans won 13 of 18 races.
  • In Michigan, Democrats seeking the House won 240,000 more votes than GOP competitors. Republicans, however, won nine of 14 seats.
  • In North Carolina, Democrats narrowly won more House votes. Republicans took more seats by a wide margin -- nine of 13.
  • In Ohio, Republicans did manage a close majority of House votes. But clever mapmaking turned a small edge into 75 percent of the seats, 12 of 16.

How do we know this is gerrymandering, and not a natural "sorting," in which Democrats move to the cities while Republicans distributed more effectively throughout suburbs and rural areas? To cite Pennsylvania as an example, in 2008 Democrats won the aggregate U.S. House vote by a similar margin as they did in 2012. With the district lines then in use, that translated into 12 of the 19 seats.

  1. Gerrymandering elects a different kind of Republican. When our districts get weighted so that one side is practically ensured victory, there are deep consequences. Few challengers step forward to run a race they will almost certainly lose. Those who dare have a hard time raising enough money to give themselves a chance. The incumbent Republican or Democrat representing this safe seat, meanwhile, knows that he or she need not pay attention to the other side. They must listen, instead, to the most fervent and extreme voices within their own party’s base. These are the voters who can end a politician’s career -- primary voters of one’s own party. Compromise, governing, working across the aisle, being open-minded to other parties -- qualities one might esteem in a legislator -- have become the very qualities that encourage the primary challenges they most fear.

This is one important reason why National Journal can find 137 "centrists" in Congress in 2002, but only four in 2012 -- and how Nate Silver can identify the number of swing districts declining from 103 to 35 between 1992 and 2012. The number of landslide districts, meanwhile, exploded from 123 to 242. Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol has dubbed this the “Koch effect,” and written that the members elected since 2010 have pushed the House to take “the biggest leap to the far right in recorded quantitative measurements of the kind that political scientists use to track legislators’ positions.”

Not only do members from safe seats behave differently,  but the safe seats help elect a new breed of politicians. Perhaps the best example of this comes from North Carolina, where, before 2012, the 11th district -- centered on the liberal college town of Asheville and surrounded by more conservative mountain towns -- was represented by a conservative Democrat, Heath Shuler. When the Republicans captured complete control of redistricting in North Carolina, however, they split Asheville into two districts, scattered the Democratic voters, and turned a competitive seat into a safe Republican stronghold.

The new representative? It’s Mark Meadows, chair of the House Freedom Caucus. Meadows pushed House Republicans toward the October 2013 government shutdown, and filed the parliamentary motion that ultimately forced the resignation of Speaker John Boehner. Now he leads a crucial bloc of firebrands -- many of them, like himself, elected on these maps -- which prevented a previous Obamacare repeal effort that they didn’t think went far enough to dismantle the Essential Health Benefits.

  1. Gerrymandering means more pandering to the base -- and Republicans feared inaction more than action. There’s a reason why Meadows and other House conservatives forced more than 50 votes on repealing Obamacare -- votes they knew would either die in the Senate or fall to a presidential veto -- while Obama remained in office. The repeal efforts were base pleasers, and as long as they were certain to be vetoed they served a political purpose but carried no political risk. Conservatives could play up their opposition to the president and his signature achievement and earn cheers from zealots back home, even while knowing it wouldn’t happen. President Trump changed the equation. When Republicans took control of Washington in January, it became crucial to deliver the one thing they spent the previous seven years vowing to achieve. Suddenly, inaction created the potential of a primary challenge.
  1. Political suicide? Or politically insulated? “I have never seen political suicide in my life like I’m seeing today,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York. But Republicans feared inaction on repeal more than action. Despite the unpopularity of the bill -- that Roper Center finding that the AHCA would be the most disliked law passed in recent decades -- Republicans believed they had to go forward with it. In other words, they thought their House majority was more vulnerable to frustrated Republicans failing to turn out in 2018 than it was to being voted out of office for backing a historically unpopular piece of legislation. They don’t fear the ads that will be run against in them in 2018, or the angry citizens at town halls this summer. They are most responsive to the most extreme piece of their own base -- the same sliver they have been stoking this entire decade. That’s the power of these lines.
  1. Republicans in competitive districts said no. Want to see a list of the few remaining swing seats? Check out the 20 Republican no votes. For the most part, these are the biggest Democratic targets next year: Many of them, like Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania and Mike Coffman of Colorado, represent affluent suburban districts where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump. There are only 37 of these “crossover” districts -- 24 that went for Clinton and elected a GOP congressperson, 13 that backed Trump and a Democrat. It is no coincidence that the last members to decide on the Trumpcare vote, and the most up for grabs, were those representing the last competitive seats. Many of these members are comfortable, nevertheless; only four of the 24 Republicans, for example, won in 2016 by fewer than 10 points. But members respond to their districts -- and when districts are shaped and perverted to produce twisted outcomes and to reduce competitiveness, our politics and the very idea of representative democracy suffers.
  1. Gerrymandered states matter more than ever. The gerrymander is not limited to Washington. Republicans control 69 of 99 state legislative chambers nationwide -- and they drew themselves that edge.

It remains to be seen what kind of AHCA bill can pass the U.S. Senate. But the crucial deal that brought the Freedom Caucus back on board, and ultimately attracted a handful of Republican moderates, would allow individual states to request a waiver from requiring the 10 Essential Health Benefits, and establish a high-risk pool for those with pre-existing conditions who found themselves priced out of other policies.

How will states decide? Governors are likely to have the final word -- but state legislatures will play a key role, and they are in many ways more gerrymandered than the U.S. House. In Michigan, for example, more people have voted for Democratic state house candidates in each of the last three elections. Republicans have kept control each time. Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are just a few of the other states where Republicans often maintain supermajorities despite fewer votes. There’s little reason to believe that those chambers will come to any different result than the House of Representatives did this week.

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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