WASHINGTON — Call it the Resistance 2.0.
Three liberal groups that launched in the chaotic aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2016 election — Arena, Run for Something and Swing Left — are teaming up for the 2020 campaign season. But their goal isn’t specifically to oust Trump. They’re joining forces to tackle the unsexy but hugely consequential problem of gerrymandering.
On Tuesday, founders for the three groups unveiled the Grassroots Redistricting Project, a joint effort to flip state legislative seats from Republican to Democratic and win majority control of at least one chamber in nine states around the country. The goal is to ensure that when state lawmakers sit down to redraw their congressional maps after the 2020 census, they craft maps that are fair — and not blatantly skewed in favor of one political party over the other.
“Everything we did in the last election cycle was to decide control of the House for the next two years,” Ethan Todras-Whitehill says of the group he co-founded, Swing Left, a liberal grassroots group started in 2017 to mobilize volunteers and raise money for Democratic political campaigns. “But what we do with this project will help determine control of the House of the next 10 years.”
Every decade, after the Census is finished, lawmakers in dozens of states use the most up-to-date demographic information to redraw the district maps for each of their state’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2011, Republican-controlled state legislatures in states such as Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania crafted and signed into law district maps that overwhelmingly — some argue unconstitutionally — led to more Republicans getting elected to the House.
The result was some of the most badly gerrymandered congressional maps in the recent history. Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation flipped from 12 Democrats and 7 Republicans in 2010 to 13 Republicans and 6 Democrats in 2012 despite very little change in the composition of the state’s electorate. The newly drawn 7th congressional district was so mangled that it was almost comical, with a political scientist describing it as “Donald Duck kicking Goofy.” Another expert named Pennsylvania’s new map “the gerrymander of the decade.” (Democrats are guilty of craven partisan gerrymandering as well, with Maryland a prime example.)
As of 2017, there were less than 80 House districts nationwide that could be considered competitive — half as many as there were 20 years ago. Gerrymandering is far from the only explanation for this; the larger geographic trend of like-minded voters sorting themselves by political beliefs has had an even bigger impact on the decline of competitive House races.
Still, the ability for partisan politicians to redraw the political boundary lines using ever more sophisticated software and algorithms has led us to a moment in which, as Run for Something co-founder Amanda Litman puts it, “politicians are picking their voters instead of the other way around.”
In the 2018 campaign cycle, Todras-Whitehill says he saw a groundswell of energy from volunteers and donors to win federal races — a surge that helped Democrats retake the House majority — but that activism didn’t filter down to state and local races. “There’s the real risk in the fact that there’s a once-in-a-decade opportunity to redraw the maps and it totally depends on who controls the state houses in 2020,” he says. “People aren’t going to be paying attention to it on their own.”
Last summer, Todras-Whitehill got together with leaders from Arena, which focuses on training the next generation of campaign staffers, and Run for Something, which recruits candidates for local and state elections, to figure out a way for the three groups to work together on a gerrymandering-centric campaign in 2019 and 2020. Guided by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee’s target map for the upcoming elections, Arena, Run for Something and Swing Left have identified nine target states for their Grassroots Redistricting Project: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas.
In each of those states, the three groups will work in tandem with the aim of flipping at least one state legislative chamber in time for the post-2020 redistricting period. According to Litman, one of the biggest obstacles to winning elections for state House or Senate seats is finding someone to run in the first place. In 2016, she said, about 40 percent of state legislative races had only one candidate from either party on the ballot. In 2018, that number was down to about 33 percent, which meant that one-third of all state legislative races were uncontested in the general election.
Ravi Gupta, a co-founder of Arena, says his group surveyed campaign managers it worked with after the 2018 midterms and found that 92 percent them said staff management or talent was their biggest challenge. “The reason why campaigns have been really struggling with talent is because for decades progressives have minimally invested in a talent pipeline,” Gupta says. “We’re not investing in our people.”
The joint campaign represents the next phase of the so-called Resistance movement. Gupta, Litman and Todras-Whitehill say they believe their redistricting project’s focus on the local level will also trickle upward to House and Senate races as well as the presidential campaign. “We feel like these districts, where there will be these key Democratic races on multiple levels, are in many ways the best places anyone can focus their energy,” Todras-Whitehill says.
Gupta says that Arena, Run for Something and Swing Left had informally worked together before, but this was their first formal collaboration. “We’re all groups that emerged after 2016 to solve discrete problems,” he says. “We’ve worked alongside each other. But we’re coming together now formally for the first time, with plenty of runway to solve one of the biggest problems that we face as a democracy.”