WASHINGTON ― Republicans chalked up a major win on Thursday when the Supreme Court gave its blessing to extreme partisan gerrymandering. They largely have Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to thank.
The court’s 5-4 ruling broke down along partisan lines, with the five conservative justices holding the majority opinion. Republicans have done far more gerrymandering than Democrats in the past decade and currently have the power to draw many more congressional districts than Democrats. If this trend continues beyond the 2020 elections, the Supreme Court’s decision will effectively entrench GOP rule in states all over the country.
We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for McConnell, whose unwavering focus on remaking the nation’s federal courts to benefit Republicans ― democracy be damned ― is paying off.
One of the court’s conservative justices, Neil Gorsuch, wouldn’t even be on the court if it weren’t for McConnell. Gorsuch filled a seat that was supposed to go to President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. But when that seat opened up in February 2016 after then-Justice Antonin Scalia died, McConnell announced he would block any Obama replacement. He and Senate Republicans spent the next year denying a hearing and a vote to Garland ― an unprecedented level of obstruction aimed at a sitting president ― and eventually let President Donald Trump fill the seat with Gorsuch in 2017.
This was after McConnell changed the Senate rules to confirm Gorsuch, and after McConnell boasted that “one of my proudest moments” was looking Obama in the eye and telling him he would block his Supreme Court pick.
If Garland had made it onto the court and Trump had only been able to fill one Supreme Court seat instead of the two he’s filled, Thursday’s ruling likely would have been the opposite: a 5-4 ruling that severe partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. That was certainly the opinion of the four liberal-leaning justices, who, led by Justice Elena Kagan, warned of the corrosive effect gerrymandering is having on American democracy.
“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” Kagan wrote in a blistering dissenting opinion. “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”
It’s impossible to quantify how far the ripple effects of McConnell’s stolen Supreme Court seat will reach. Gorsuch was the deciding vote in at least two major cases in 2018, when the court narrowly upheld Trump’s travel ban and, separately, upheld the rights of anti-abortion centers.
Thursday’s decision means Republicans are poised to win more House and Senate seats going forward. It means it will be harder for federal courts to intervene in gerrymandering that intentionally deprives black people of political power, as long as people claim the district was drawn for partisan gain. It means McConnell’s calculation that prioritizing putting conservatives into lifetime federal court seats, even if they are embarrassingly unqualified, even if it requires blowing up the rules to do it, even if it means pretending your actions are guided by principles instead of bad faith arguments, will all be worth it.
“McConnell, who knows that Republicans can’t win in a fair set of elections, has focused single-mindedly on stacking the deck for generations after he is gone, and the policies he represents have been rejected by voters,” said Norm Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C., conservative think tank.
Ornstein went on a Twitter tirade after the court’s ruling on gerrymandering, accusing the justices of giving too much leverage to Republicans at the expense of the public.
“I see it as a true perversion of a Republican form of democracy,” he told HuffPost. “Citizens are supposed to choose their representatives and this is distortion in major ways.”
“McConnell, who knows that Republicans can’t win in a fair set of elections, has focused single-mindedly on stacking the deck for generations after he is gone.”
McConnell told Capitol Hill reporters Thursday that he was pleased with the court’s decision.
“There is no such thing as a nonpartisan gerrymander,” he said, citing Democrats winning the House in 2018 despite GOP-led redistricting efforts. “The problem is overstated.”
He’s right that Democrats won more votes and flipped hundreds of seats in state legislatures in the 2018 elections. But they should have won more.
Republicans won about 16 more U.S. House seats than expected and may have held onto as many as seven state House chambers thanks to those districts being drawn to give the GOP a built-in advantage, per a March 2019 analysis by The Associated Press.
McConnell was an unexpected focus in Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, where moderators asked each of the candidates how they would deal with him if elected president. None had a good answer.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.