To hear Scott Walker tell it, Republicans are up against the ropes.
Last week, the former Wisconsin governor officially became the fundraising chairman for one of the main GOP groups focused on drawing maps for Congress and state legislatures. As Walker put it, his charge at the National Republican Redistricting Trust (NRRT) is to “counter the efforts of the far Left to try and gerrymander their way into permanent control.”
“Democrats, led by Barack Obama and Eric Holder, will stop at nothing” in this quest, the NRRT’s website declares.
It appears that the GOP is gearing up for a redistricting smackdown just as their opponents across the aisle are pushing for a truce.
Democrats, led by former Attorney General Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), are working to eradicate—or at least impose limits—on partisan gerrymandering. While both groups claim to be fighting for “fair maps,” the NDRC has come out against unfairly rigged districts in blue and red states alike and backed the creation of independent commissions to take control of the map-drawing process out of state lawmakers’ hands.
The NRRT has not.
With Walker as the group’s new face, the NRRT and NDRC are headed for an ideologically lopsided, vicious and expensive battle for control ahead of the 2020 elections and the redistricting cycle that will follow in 2021.
“The biggest difference between the two organizations and the two parties is we want a fair process and fair maps and an end to partisan gerrymandering, and I think they would like a system much like we had the past eight years, in which Republicans had control of the map-drawing process and they can gerrymander all over again,” NDRC communications director Patrick Rodenbush told TPM.
The NRRT declined comment out of concern that they would not be “treated fairly.”
But the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC)—the NRRT’s ally in the redistricting wars—had the group’s back.
“Governor Walker’s sentiments are spot-on accurate,” RSLC communications director David James told TPM, arguing that Holder’s group is pushing for policies favoring Democrats, not merely advocating for fair maps.
“The stated purpose of the NDRC on file with the IRS on the form 990 is to place Democrats in a more advantageous position for redistricting in 2020,” James said. “So these crocodile tears they have of, ‘Oh we just want politicians out of it’ is complete malarkey.”
Gerrymandering wasn’t always such a controversial practice.
For decades, both parties carved up congressional and state legislative districts to their own advantage. Democrats in “blue wall” states like Illinois and Maryland, in particular, abused the practice (Republicans are quick to note that Obama’s Chicago state senate district was gerrymandered to help him win). Democrats also neglected and failed to invest adequate resources in state-level politics, allowing Republicans to sweep the tables in 2010. The RSLC’s REDMAP plan to win key statehouses and governorships in order to secure control of the 2011 redistricting process was an unmitigated success for the party.
Thanks to that program, the GOP has maintained control of swing states like Ohio and Walker’s own Wisconsin throughout the past decade, even when Democrats earned a greater percentage of the popular vote. Republicans currently control 61 state legislative chambers, compared to 37 for Democrats.
The RSLC’s James denied that these enduring wins for the GOP are a result of artfully drawn district lines.
“The reason the Democrats continue to lose is they run bad candidates with bad ideas,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the system. They have a hard time stomaching that their candidates and ideas are out of sync with mainstream America.”
But the party has acknowledged that REDMAP was “instrumental” to their state-level success, and in 2015 launched REDMAP 2020, a project aimed at electing GOP legislators “in an effort to keep and expand Republican-controlled legislative chambers in advance of 2020 redistricting.” In September 2017, the NRRT was founded to help fund and compile data for that plan.
But it’s hard to know exactly what the NRRT is up to. Except for their 2017 rollout and the announcement of Walker’s new role, the group has been notably quiet about their work and their targets looking to 2020.
Litigation is one of their main points of emphasis. The NRRT has said they plan to both defend Republican-drawn maps in court and “go on offense” to try to knock down maps in blue states.
What they oppose is clearer: court-drawn maps and independent redistricting commissions. The NRRT’s site is full of links to articles arguing that the courts shouldn’t be involved in the inherently political redistricting process, and the NRRT’s general counsel, veteran GOP attorney Jason Torchinsky, has pushed that line in the Virginia redistricting case currently before the courts.
The NRRT’s affiliated nonprofit, Fair Lines America, paid $50,000 to fight an ultimately successful 2018 ballot measure to create an independent redistricting commission in Michigan.
The Republican State Leadership Committee’s James argued that commissions are “a charade dressed up in good governance that is completely stacked with their people, their Democrats.”
“The idea of redistricting in most states and in most situations is best left to the body that’s closest to the people, and that’s the state legislature,” he told TPM.
Most Democratic leaders, including Holder, would now say they disagree.
President Trump’s 2016 election prompted the party to rebuild the Democratic bench, spawning a host of groups aimed at electing progressive candidates to local office. Holder and Obama followed up by launching the NDRC in January 2017.
The NDRC’s stated goal is to gain a voice in the redistricting process by breaking trifecta GOP control of states. The group strategically funds Democratic candidates for governor, state senate and state house races in the hopes of gaining control of one of these three influence points in most states’ redistricting process. While unabashedly partisan, the NDRC has also backed ballot initiatives that would create independent citizen-led redistricting commissions in states like Michigan and Colorado, as well as measures that would reform how maps get drawn in states like Missouri and Ohio.
“That’s where the proof has been in their actions,” Tom Bonier, CEO of Democratic political data firm TargetSmart, told TPM. “If they were really just focused on, ‘Well let’s maximize our gerrymander,’ they’d be focused more on the states that are currently split and saying, ‘Let’s get the trifecta so we can really put in a strong Dem map.’”
Bonier said he didn’t necessarily always agree with the NDRC’s approach. Holder’s opposition to New Jersey Democrats’ recent gerrymandering proposal was “based on a misunderstanding” of the measure, according to Bonier. But it proved to him that the group would argue for fairer maps “even when it’s been politically inconvenient.”
Other forces are pushing Democrats in this direction. In most states, maps drawn by an independent body or court would represent a significant improvement on the status quo for Democrats. The energized progressive base is also advocating for an end to a system where politicians of any party get to craft their own districts. Congressional Democrats’ sprawling HR1 bill proposes creating independent redistricting commissions in every state.
“The NRRT and RSLC are up against more than just Eric Holder,” Dave Daley, the author of “Ratfucked,” a book on the 2010 REDMAP plan, told TPM. “The Democratic grassroots really woke up on this question.”
These seem to be the general battle lines between the parties. (There are some exceptions, like former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s opposition to gerrymandering and Maryland Democratic lawmakers’ defense of their blatantly rigged 7-1 congressional map.)
And Walker’s appointment to NRRT leadership signaled just how aggressive the GOP plans to be in the 2021 cycle. While Republicans may argue that both parties rig maps, Walker signed off on some of the most gerrymandered districts in modern history as Wisconsin’s governor.
In 2018, Democrats won about 199,000 more votes for the state assembly. Republicans retained a 63-33 advantage in seats.
Walker may “not be a credible spokesperson on this,” said Daley, the author of the book on REDMAP. To still say that both parties see gerrymandering the same way, he added, is “gaslighting and it’s rewriting history.”