Karl Rove’s March 2010 Wall Street Journal editorial, “The GOP Targets State Legislatures,” may go down as one of the most consequential pieces of political writing of the decade. In it, the Republican strategist laid out a plan to use partisan redistricting after the census to “control Congress” for a “decade to come.” Gerrymandering had already been a longstanding practice in American politics, but Rove hinted at something far more extreme; something game-changing. With another census around the corner in 2020 and an election tomorrow, his essay and the response to it by Democrats bear re-examining.
At the time of its publication, Rove’s editorial was met with little fanfare. Drunk off a landslide win in 2008, Democrats had faith in their newly-elected and wildly popular (not to mention historic) president. Barack Obama had his own plans and they certainly didn’t involve pouring money into what he saw as the unreliable state parties. Instead, he would concentrate power and funds largely in his own shadow party, OFA.
Eight years later, however, the results speak for themselves. Republicans ended up sweeping the 2010 midterms and controlling congressional and state redistricting across the country. Democrats have failed to win a majority in the House of Representatives ever since, and the GOP now controls 26 states entirely and the legislatures in an additional six (67 of 99 legislative chambers nationwide), placing it well within striking distance of the 34-state threshold for calling a constitutional convention and the 38-state threshold for ratifying new amendments.
Yet Democrats still didn’t learn the lesson. In 2016, with the census a presidential term away, the party’s leadership lined up behind, and actively worked to nominate, a historically unpopular candidate. The decision ignored several important factors that perhaps should have been considered: the tendency of voters to reject the president’s party in the midterms, the already unfavorable 2018 election map, and the fact that the last consecutive two-term presidents from the same party were James Madison and James Monroe. But if there were any concerns about what a Hillary presidency would mean for the post-2020 redistricting, they certainly weren’t aired publicly. The DNC even entered into a joint-fundraising agreement with Hillary For America that left the state parties severely underfunded, with all but one percent of the cash going to the Clinton campaign.
Incidentally, Trump’s victory may have temporarily saved the Democrats from themselves, setting up the GOP to take midterm losses in what would otherwise be a favorable year. But even then, the so-called “Blue Wave” everyone and their mother seems to be talking about is hardly a guarantee with Democrats struggling to maintain their edge. The party has held a narrow but consistent lead on the generic ballot, but a recent poll from The Atlantic found that only one in three millennials are definitely planning on voting come November.
The problem certainly isn’t energy from the grassroots. Since Trump’s inauguration, protests and disruptions have been cropping up all around the US, including the historic Women’s March. Protesters have begun confronting GOP politicians in much the same way as Tea Party protesters did ahead of the 2010 election.
No, the issue lies in which leaders have been tasked with harnessing that energy and how they’ve gone about doing it. Before the dust had even settled after 2016’s devastating losses, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Tom Perez were chosen to chart the party’s new course into the future. As it so happened, that new course looked an awful lot like the old one—the same policy-free daily fundraising email blasts to supporters; the same general wariness of being perceived as too far left; the same reluctance to take on special interests or sign on with popular policies like Medicare-for-all; the same failure to unify in opposition to Trump’s agenda; the same lack of prioritization of state-level funding; the same intervention in primaries.
And while the DNC did adopt some reforms, like the aesthetic limitation on the power of superdelegates, the overall message from the top has remained consistent: very little has changed. This has fed the perception that the party is more interested in preserving its existing power structures than it is with winning, despite the risks to the country and the rest of the world.
That said, anti-Trump sentiment may ultimately be enough to carry the day this November. A number of truly progressive candidates are also running at all levels of government, shaking things up. In roughly half of the contested races, the Democrat has backed Medicare-for-all. These insurgents promise to be a boon for their party.
Regardless, Democrats are playing a dangerous game. Over 6,000 state legislative seats are up for grabs, which will determine how steep a climb the party faces heading into 2020. Its survival could well depend on turnout. The post-2020 redistricting will be the first since the Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which laid out the requirements for federal preclearance of changes to a state’s voting schemes. Without preclearance in effect, the gerrymandering promises to be extreme.
It seems that every election gets framed as the most consequential of all time, but in 2018, it may be true. Tomorrow’s midterms will likely determine which party controls the House for the next decade.