According to a new report from the Associated Press, Republicans spent years developing a strategy to take advantage of the 2010 census, taking control of state legislatures and drawing Congressional districts that favored the GOP.
That means Democrats face an uphill fight to try to regain control of the House this fall.
Associated Press reporter Stephen Ohlemacher joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss his reporting.
- Associated Press: The GOP advantage: Geography or gerrymandering?
- Stephen Ohlemacher, reporter for the Associated Press. He tweets @stephenatap.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
And the midterm elections are seven months from tomorrow, but Democrats face an uphill fight to regain control of the House of Representatives and not necessarily because of the voters. A story from the Associated Press details how Republicans have taken advantage of the redistricting process, first by winning control of state legislatures and then redrawing house districts in their favor.
AP reporter Stephen Ohlemacher wrote the story, which is out today. He joins us from Washington. And, Stephen, both parties have done this. It's called gerrymandering. But you write that the Republican success this time around is unprecedented, that back in the 2012 elections, for example, the GOP maintained a 33-seat majority in the House even though Republicans got 1.4 million fewer votes than Democrats.
STEPHEN OHLEMACHER: Yes. And that was the first fruits of their labor after the 2010 census. Remember that year, it was a big year for Democrats. The president was re-elected. Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate. And you're right, as a group, Democratic candidates for the House got more votes than Republicans, but Republicans were able to maintain their majority in the House. They're likely to see the next benefit of this redistricting in the elections this fall.
HOBSON: Well, give us an example of what these districts look like at this point. I remember Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas on Larry King years ago saying some of the districts were so narrow that if you drove down the street with both your car doors open you'd hit every house.
OHLEMACHER: There's a district in Ohio that's up along the coast of Lake Erie. It's not quite that narrow, but it's close. It stretches about 140 miles from Cleveland to Toledo, and Marcy Kaptur - a Democrat from Toledo - represents it. And at one point, it's the width of a bridge, which is about 20 yards wide. And yet it's 140 miles long. And Republicans drew this district to put both Marcy Kaptur and former Representative Dennis Kucinich in the same district. And Marcy Kaptur ended up winning the Democratic primary, and then she overwhelmingly won re-election because this district packed lots of Democrats into the district.
HOBSON: And the idea there is that if you pack all the Democrats into one district, instead of spreading them out over other districts, there will be many more Republican districts than there would otherwise be.
OHLEMACHER: Exactly. And Ohio is a fantastic example of this. Think about Ohio. It's the presidential battleground state in many elections. It essentially helps decide who is elected president. But look at the congressional makeup in the state of Ohio in the House. They have 16 seats. Twelve are represented by Republicans and only four are represented by Democrats. How can they do this? They do this by packing as many Democratic voters as possible into the fewest number of districts. Republican voters, meanwhile, are spread out more evenly so that they can have majorities in more districts.
HOBSON: Well, you talked about state legislatures and that this is all about the fight at state legislatures. And before the 2010 election, you write, the GOP had majorities in 36 state legislative bodies. Afterward, they controlled 56. That's according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Why didn't Democrats go forward with that fight back in 2010?
OHLEMACHER: Well, a couple of things were happening. Remember, the 2010 election was a disaster for Democrats. The economy was bad. The budget deficit was ballooning. Voters were angry over bank bailouts. The president's health care law had just passed without any Republican votes. And all of this fueled the rise of conservative Tea Party groups that supported Republican candidates up and down the ballot. So that was the political climate they were working in.
Republicans, meanwhile, had a strategy and they called it REDMAP, which stood for Redistricting Majority Project. There was a group in Washington called the Republican State Leadership Committee. You probably never heard of it. You know, you think about it, each of the parties have committees that try to elect members to the House and members to the Senate. This is the national body that tries to elect Republicans to state office. And they raised over $30 million, and they used that money to target statehouse races in key states to try and flip the control from Democrat to Republican.
In a state like Ohio, they dropped $1 million on six statehouse races. In Pennsylvania they dropped $1 million on three statehouse races. You know, that's more than $300,000 for a statehouse race in Pennsylvania. Now that may not seem like a whole lot of money in Washington, but if you're running for the statehouse in Pennsylvania and the national party comes in and drops more than $300,000 on your race, I like your chances.
HOBSON: Well, so are Democrats learning from that? Have they started to focus more energy on state races?
OHLEMACHER: It's funny you ask that. The president mentioned this just a few weeks ago that Democrats have done a good job in presidential elections, but they haven't done a great job of getting out their supporters in midterm elections. So the Democrats are going to try to put more emphasis on getting voters out in these elections. However, they're going to have to wait until the next census in 2020 before they can redraw all the congressional maps.
HOBSON: There is another alternative, and it's in play in California and five other states. And that is to have an independent board do the redistricting. In California, there are 14 members: five Democrats, five Republicans and four who have declined to state a party affiliation.
OHLEMACHER: Yes, you are right. And these are mostly Western states although New Jersey has an independent commission as well. In most states, the state legislature and the governor, it's their job to redraw congressional districts. But in a number of these states, they have tried to take the politics out. They've had some success. I know Republicans will complain that they don't like the maps in California because the number of Democrats grew.
In other states like New Jersey, they literally draw maps to help sort of balance the power. And what that does is it protects incumbents but it divvies up the seats relatively evenly among Democrats and Republicans.
HOBSON: Well, in California, it didn't protect incumbents, right? There was a race between two incumbents.
OHLEMACHER: Yes, you're right. And there was a lot of those races in California, which is kind of interesting. You think about it, when the state legislature and the governor draw all the maps, they tend to protect incumbents. That's another form of gerrymandering. You don't just do it to increase a party's power. You gerrymander to protect incumbents. This commission did something that the legislature would never do. They put a lot of members in the same districts to make incumbents run against each other. And that is a fairly rare thing. You don't see that in many states.
HOBSON: What has the impact been on policy? You think about something like immigration where both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate were willing to pass comprehensive reform. They, of course, can't redraw their districts. It's just the borders of the states. And yet you get to the House, and you've got members who - some of them - probably don't have many Hispanics in their districts at all, or people that care about this issue perhaps.
OHLEMACHER: One of the byproducts of gerrymandering is that we've divided up the population in these districts so that, in many cases, Republicans and Democrats represent very different groups of people with very different views on divisive issues. Take immigration, for example. Republican districts on average have about half as many Hispanics in them as Democratic districts. And if you look at where there are large concentrations of Hispanics in this country, in the House, those districts are almost all represented by Democrats.
So you have something that happen in the Senate where they pass the immigration bill. It comes over to the House, and there aren't a lot of repercussions for Republicans back home for not voting for a comprehensive immigration bill because they don't have many Hispanics back in their districts.
HOBSON: Stephen Ohlemacher is a reporter for the Associated Press. His article on redistricting and gerrymandering can be found at our website, hereandnow.org. Stephen, thanks so much for talking with us.
OHLEMACHER: Thank you for having me.
HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.