Democrats were rightly euphoric after their big gains in the 2017 off-year elections. With new grassroots energy yielding improbable down-ticket wins, they very nearly took control of the Virginia House of Delegates, which had been 2-to-1 Republican. At this writing, the House is 49 to 48 Republican, with recounts still pending in three races.
The Virginia win was also heartening because it sidestepped and began to heal the Bernie/Hillary schism in the Democratic Party. Both factions came together to elect mostly young progressives to office.
Normally, one would expect 2018 to be bumper year for Democrats. The out party normally picks up an average of about 30 House and 4 Senate seats in the first midterm election after a new president is elected, and this is no average year. Republicans are divided and dispirited, Trump is monumentally unpopular, Democrats are energized.
But because of gerrymandering and a variety of voter suppression techniques, Republicans have a structural advantage of between six and nine points. In other words, Democrats need a landslide win in order to gain a modest legislative majority.
Nationally, vote rigging and gerrymandering gives Republicans a head start of something like 20 to 25 House seats. There is a lot of nonsense being peddled about “wasted” Democratic votes due to the fact that Dems are crammed into heavily blue states and cities. This does play a role — but not as much as gerrymandering and voter suppression.
Until the election of 2012, gerrymandering was practiced to a roughly equal degree by both parties. But in 2010, Karl Rove launched Project REDMAP, to take over state legislatures and hire armies of technical experts armed with computers and sophisticated algorithms to keep running literally thousands of possible maps until the maximum number of Republican seats resulted.
As a consequence of this thumb-on-the-scale redistricting, Democratic candidates for House seats in 2012 won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans, yet Republicans won 33 more seats. In 2012, Pennsylvania Democratic congressional candidates collectively outpolled Republicans by nearly 100,000 votes, yet Republicans won 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats in the U.S. House. A similar story obtained in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. By contrast, in the 2008 election, before the super-gerrymandering, the party allocation of seats closely tracked the popular vote. All told, REDMAP gave total control of the redistricting process to Republicans in 21 states. (For the definitive account of REDMAP, see David Daley’s book, Ratf**ked.)
In addition to the legacy of the gerrymandering of 2012, we can expect redoubled voter suppression in 2018 — purges of voter rolls, the selective use of photo ID, and long lines in districts with black and brown voters, or areas known to favor Democrats.
Even so, the signs are that the blue wave in 2018 will be so intense that it will defeat the Republicans’ built in margin of theft. (You can’t gerrymander the Senate more than it is already gerrymandered – the Founders did that in advance, giving tiny states the same number of seats as the most populous ones.) Yet the prospects of a Democratic takeover of the Senate are also looking better and better.
A big blue wave in 2018 would not only overcome the legacy of gerrymandering and voter suppression in Congress. It would help Democrats take back several state legislatures, looking forward to the 2020 Census ― and an opportunity for real electoral reform.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His forthcoming book is “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?” (Norton, 2018)
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