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How Republicans Rig the Game

Through gerrymandering, voter suppression and legislative tricks, the GOP has managed to hold on to power while more and more Americans reject their candidates and their ideas

Illustration by Victor Juhasz
November 11, 2013 10:35 AM ET

As the nation recovers from the Republican shutdown of government, the question Americans should be asking is not "Why did the GOP do that to us?" but "Why were they even relevant in the first place?" So dramatically have the demographic and electoral tides in this country turned against the Republican Party that, in a representative democracy worthy of the designation, the Grand Old Party should be watching from the sidelines and licking its wounds. Not only did Barack Obama win a second term in an electoral landslide in 2012, but he is also just the fourth president in a century to have won two elections with more than 50 percent of the popular vote. What's more, the party controls 55 seats in the Senate, and Democratic candidates for the House received well over a million more votes than their Republican counterparts in the election last year. And yet, John Boehner still wields the gavel in the House and Republican resistance remains a defining force in the Senate, frustrating Obama's ambitious agenda.

The GOP's real agenda: How Republicans' politics are harsher than ever

How is this possible? National Republicans have waged an unrelenting campaign to exploit every weakness and anachronism in our electoral system. Through a combination of hyperpartisan redistricting of the House, unprecedented obstructionism in the Senate and racist voter suppression in the states, today's GOP has locked in political power that it could never have secured on a level playing field.

Despite the fact that Republican Congressional candidates received nearly 1.4 million fewer votes than Democratic candidates last November, the Republicans lost only eight seats from their historic 2010 romp, allowing them to preserve a fat 33-seat edge in the House. Unscrupulous Republican gerrymandering following the 2010 census made the difference, according to a statistical analysis conducted by the Princeton Election Consortium. Under historically typical redistricting, House Republicans would now likely be clinging to a reedy five-seat majority. "There's the normal tug of war of American politics," says Sam Wang, founder of the consortium. "Trying to protect one congressman here, or unseat another one there." The Princeton model was built, he says, to detect "whether something got pulled off-kilter on top of that."

Did it ever. In Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates took 51 percent of the vote across the state's 18 districts, but only five of the seats. In Wang's model, the odds against Democrats emerging at an eight-seat disadvantage are 1,000-to-1. And Pennsylvania was not alone. According to the Election Consortium analysis, gerrymandering helped Republicans secure 13 seats in just six states – including Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina – that, under normal rules of engagement, Democrats would have won.

This tilting of the electoral playing field was the result of a sophisticated campaign coordinated at the highest levels of Republican politics through a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) – a Super-PAC-like entity chaired by Bush-era RNC chairman Ed Gillespie and backed by Karl Rove. Shortly after President Obama's first election, the RSLC launched the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) with an explicit strategy to "keep or win Republican control of state legislatures with the largest impact on congressional redistricting." The logic was simple. Every decade following the census, the task of redrawing federal congressional-district boundaries falls (with some exceptions) to the state legislatures. If Republicans could seize control of statehouses – and, where necessary, have GOP governors in place to rubber-stamp their redistricting maps – the party could lock in new districts that would favor Republican candidates for a decade. As Rove wrote in a Wall Street Journal column in early 2010: "He who controls redistricting can control Congress."

In short order, the RSLC raised more than $30 million to fund Rove's vision while its hapless counterpart, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, raised barely one-third of that amount. "The Obama people simply didn't understand what was happening to them in 2010," says a prominent Democrat. "They just sat it out, and Republicans ran up the score."

The RSLC was particularly focused on states that stood to gain or lose seats. Ohio, for example, would lose two to states with faster population growth. Instead of tweaking the boundaries of existing districts, mapmakers would be empowered in these states to draw new boundaries more or less from scratch – providing "maximum opportunity for mischief," in the words of RSLC president and former REDMAP executive director Chris Jankowski. "You certainly don't want your opponent drawing those lines." On election night in 2010, propelled by Tea Party anger and the RSLC's millions, the GOP seized full-party control of 21 state governments – up from nine the previous year and enough to put the party in charge of redistricting 173 House seats. "Democrats," bragged Jankowski, "will not soon recover from what happened to them on a state level last night."

In past elections, a gentleman's agreement prevailed among sitting politicians of both parties that redistricting would keep them safe. But in 2010, Gillespie told reporters, the Republican strategy would be "to maximize gains." Incumbent seats would be made somewhat less safe in service of spreading the GOP's advantage more broadly. "You'd go from these [incumbent] seats that would carve at 60 percent to seats that get carved at 54 percent," he said.

RSLC's impact was particularly clear in North Carolina. Leading up to the 2010 election, RSLC steered $1.2 million into the state to fund withering attack ads. Democratic incumbents from poor, rural districts simply didn't have the resources to defend themselves against the onslaught of outside spending – and national Democrats didn't call in the cavalry. As a result, Republicans seized control of the North Carolina state assembly for the first time since Reconstruction and began plotting to take control of the state's 13-seat congressional delegation, which still swung Democrat, seven seats to six.

The GOP's War on Voting

In a letter to state legislators, Jankowski wrote, "We have taken the initiative to retain a team of seasoned redistricting experts that we will make available to you at no cost to your caucus for assistance." The RSLC brought on GOP operative Tom Hofeller, who has been in the Republican redistricting game since the 1970s.

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