On another dreary, drizzly morning in Washington, weeks after the election, a fog stubbornly refuses to lift, perhaps knowing it is the perfect metaphor. If you were filming the sad morning-after-a-breakup scene in a Hollywood movie, the only missing element would be the wistful Sia or Aimee Mann soundtrack. I want to meet those doing the everyday work of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
It turns out that the Democratic Governors Association, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are all largely headquartered in a Band-Aid-colored building on I Street with angular rows of windows that resemble a partly folded map or an accordion. All of which seems apt, of course, for a party that has been played like one — and which badly needs to stop the bleeding and find direction.
I expect the gloom, or at least some dazed disbelief, to permeate the offices, but the mood inside the Democrats’ strategy sanctum feels business-as-usual. There’s no crying at the Keurig, no red wine bottles piled high in the recycling, no wingtip-sized holes in the wall from an election-night tantrum. I find this oddly disappointing. The legislative chambers these organizations are tasked to flip remained torture chambers in 2016. The party invested millions down-ballot in 2016, and focused on key redistricting states like Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin. They hoped that high Democratic turnout in a presidential year would color more states blue and propel them toward the 2018 midterms and the crucial 2020 elections. Their confidence proved misplaced.
Nancy Pelosi vowed that Democrats would win the 30 seats necessary to take back the House. They won 6. The DLCC — excited by an aggressive 150 down-ballot endorsements by President Obama — predicted they’d flip as many as 13 chambers their way. They did capture 3, aided by large Latino turnout: Nevada’s House and senate and New Mexico’s House. But that merely offset the loss of the Kentucky House and the senate in Iowa and Minnesota. Republicans even created a startling senate deadlock in azure-blue Connecticut (a Democratic lieutenant governor will break the tie). Democrats also tried to swipe a page from the REDMAP playbook and spent intensely on 32 state legislative seats in key redistricting states, again with the goal of steady gains building toward 2020. BLUEMAP did not go well, either: Democrats lost all the targeted races in Ohio and Wisconsin, spun just one seat their way in Michigan, and took two of four in both Pennsylvania and Florida. North Carolina proved more welcoming; Democrats won three of four targeted races but gained little headway. The GOP supermajorities remained intact.
This creates a daunting landscape, especially in the swing states where Democrats must make gains if they want even a seat at the table after the 2020 census. In Ohio, the GOP edge is 66–33 in the House and 24–9 in the senate. Michigan is nearly as steep: 63–47 for Republicans in the House and 27–11 in the senate. Republicans widened their largest advantage in sixty years in Wisconsin’s lower chamber to 64–35 and boast 20 of 33 senate seats. Florida’s majorities look just as difficult to topple — a stout 79–41 in the House and 25–15 in the senate. (Republicans ran unopposed for 16 of the 21 senate seats needed for a majority.) The flipping-chambers approach has also gotten more expensive: REDMAP helped the GOP retake Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin for $1 million. Now a single state House district in Minnesota can cost that much to flip. That’s not a "Moneyball" bargain any longer.
Enter a new team of Democratic strategists: DGA executive director Elisabeth Pearson, House Majority PAC president Ali Lapp and DLCC executive director Jessica Post. They are the leaders of the NDRC, and we’ve gathered to discuss what went wrong in 2016, what lessons were learned, and what the party might try next. The architecture of the Democrats’ plan looks a lot like REDMAP: the NDRC will serve as an umbrella organization to coordinate political and legal efforts by the DGA, DLCC, DCCC and others — and, as importantly, convince fundraisers and Democrats nationwide that the party’s top priority has to be fixing unbalanced state maps that render even a national Democratic majority a permanent electoral minority.
“Democrats have been at a disadvantage in terms of our base and our core donors understanding the impact of state races,” said Pearson. “If you live in California or New York, where a lot of big donors are, why is it important that there’s a Democratic governor in Ohio? We can’t look at it the way Republicans looked at it in 2010. It’s a mistake to be always fighting the last war.”
Post admitted that fighting the last war is the reason why Democrats got caught flatfooted in 2010. She became executive director in January 2016, after watching previous DLCC teams botch the communication and organizing sides. “You can’t paper over a hot mess with independent spending,” she said, and I immediately fall for her candor. “We were prepared for the fights of the past. We had lawyers and data — and they had late money. We could have done a better job of communicating to stakeholders what 2010 meant. When you’re in a legislative world, you assume everyone knows. This is the line! This is Obama’s legacy!”
Post emphasized the gains in Nevada and New Mexico, a dozen seats won in Kansas, and the “huge opportunities” created after the 2016 losses and the grass-roots energy that followed as positives from a tough year. Her field operation knocked on 13 million doors. She says they will continue to develop the infrastructure necessary to win. “We have a lot of learning to do,” she admits. She thought there was a path to flip Michigan’s House: “We did gain one seat there.” In Minnesota, “we thought there was a path.”
In other states, Democrats lack financial parity, “which we were not at in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, which is an expensive place to play.” They have to be staffed earlier. They need to build digital media support. It didn’t help, she adds, that it’s complicated to get solid polling data out of legislative districts in the last days of an election. “If we can provide more money to fund the infrastructure from the beginning, to find great candidates, make sure they’re doing their fundraising, their door-knocking — that’s when we catch up,” she says. “We’re just not there.”
Post is enthusiastic and has organized effectively at the grass roots. But it’s hard not to be troubled about the Democrats’ preparation when she says, candidly, that the party might not know what it is doing. “We’re competing in an electoral environment that we don’t always understand. Certainly here in D.C., we didn’t understand the trends that were going on in states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa.” Still, she’s optimistic. “The Democratic base is furious right now, and they’re looking for outlets. They’re looking for ways to help. They’re looking for ways to bring the fight into their state capitals.”
One wonders, however, if the party understands how to harness that energy. Pearson also insists that the most recent battle didn’t go that poorly, on the governors front. She points to the McCrory knockout in North Carolina, as well as reelected Democratic incumbents in West Virginia and Montana, two states that went for Trump by upwards of 20 points. “We protected all our incumbents,” she says, omitting that with a record low of Democratic governors, that’s an easier task than it used to be. “We learned a lot of good lessons about how we continue to be successful. We view this as a four-year cycle. That was year two. We’re on our way to year three: Virginia and New Jersey. Then 36 governor’s races in 2018, including 27 that are Republican. There’s just a huge amount of opportunity. 2018 alone could completely reshape the state political system. The governors map is incredibly encouraging.”
Actually, the 2018 governors map might be the only electoral front worth prioritizing, after the party’s failure to make any legislative gains in states crucial to redistricting after 2020. There’s not a single chamber in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or Florida that the Democrats have a realistic chance of retaking in the next two cycles. Those legislatures are responsible for congressional lines that send 55 Republicans and 28 Democrats to Washington. Democrats have no honest chance of taking back the House when blue and purple states are rigged to elect twice as many Republicans as Democrats. (Add Virginia and North Carolina to that group, and you suddenly have 72 Republicans and 35 Democrats representing blue or purple states — and the districts that have swung blue in these key states this decade have been when courts found the districts unconstitutional and mandated new maps.)
There is another solution. Governors in those five states have veto power over the maps — and all five of those states will elect governors in 2018. In Michigan and Ohio, two-term incumbent Republicans will be term-limited out of office. While new progressive groups like Swing Left imagine riding anti-Trump energy to a blue House in 2018, that’s not the most likely path. If Democrats want a seat at the table, this is the most realistic road and must be the highest priority. (Democrats are already struggling on this front: the Republican Governors Association — which outraised the DGA by $20 million in 2016 — also managed to haul in more money than its Democratic counterpart in the final weeks of 2016: $5.1 million to $2.1 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity. That means Republicans turned Trump’s victory into more than twice as much money as Democrats were able to collect from supposedly motivated and fired-up Democrats.)
“Yes, they are,” agrees Pearson, when I suggest those five races could be the difference between better maps in 2020 and a permanent Democratic minority that extends for another decade. “Those are states we can win in. They’re not red states. These are purple states and open seats, and after eight years of Republican governors, we have a great shot at winning. We have to raise a lot of money and lay the right groundwork. But we’re feeling incredibly optimistic about this coming cycle. Our plan is to make sure that in every state we have a cycle-by-cycle goal, and that we’re looking at every single path to a seat at the table or a way to fairer maps.”
Lapp, meanwhile, insists that the Democrats’ 2016 plans were actually on track until FBI director James Comey released his October 28 letter to Congress announcing that the bureau would investigate additional emails relevant to questions over Clinton’s private server.
“The voters that moved at the end all went to Trump,” she says. “It’s very challenging when, two weeks out, you think a district will vote for Hillary Clinton by 18 points, and it turns out she wins it by 3. Any effort to tie congressman so-and-so to Trump is not going to be effective when you’re only winning the district by three points.” Moving forward, however, “we did win in some places where Trump did well and I think that we have some good targets heading into 2018.” But the bottom line, she admits, is that “in many states north of Pennsylvania that lean Democratic statewide, the disparity in the congressional delegation remains wide and that really is because of the gerrymandering. That’s why it’s such a priority for us to get better maps next time.”
The mix of optimism and confusion surprises me. So I pose to Lapp and Pearson a question that’s on the mind of many people: Do Democrats fight tough enough? Do you realize the strategies you’re up against, and are you meeting them with the same intensity and resolve? They insist the answer is yes. “On the governors side, we’re there,” Pearson says. “This is a no-holds-barred fight for the next two years. We had a call with governors the day after the election; I’ve never heard any group as fired up and totally motivated. They understand they’re the backstop, and what needs to be done in 2018. We’re going to battle and we’re going to win.”
Admittedly, that’s a pretty strong halftime speech. Lapp, however, has not been watching "Rocky" or "Hoosiers" lately. “I think the country just decided that Donald Trump would be its next president,” she says. “Obviously, we hoped to win more seats, right? We didn’t win enough seats in districts where Trump lost. There are specific reasons for that as you go through each district. Sure, I would’ve loved to have done better, but I’m happy that we were able to pick up seats at all in an environment that turned out to be extremely challenging for Democrats.”
Post offers more enthusiasm, albeit measured: “We had some wins. We know what we have to do. It’s just a matter of putting our building blocks in place,” she says. “Democrats do great as underdogs. We’re tough. Right?” I can’t tell if she wants me to answer.