Why Don't Democrats Have a Bench? Blame Gerrymandering and Their 2010 Debacle

By redrawing electoral districts, Republicans have ensured that their political rivals will have a tough time getting elected.

Landon Nichols, 19 months, holds onto his mother's, Liz Nichols, leg as she cast her ballot in one of the voting booths at Alexander East High School on November 6, 2012 in Albany, Ohio.

Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg

Hillary Clinton's self-inflicted e-mail nightmare has not boosted any of her potential rivals for the presidency. In one of the more comprehensive looks at why this is so, the power trio of Jonathan Martin, Maggie Haberman, and Nick Confessore cited the Democrats' own numbers to demonstrate how badly they'd been marginalized in the Obama years, down "more than 900 state legislative seats and 11 governorships."

They mention one of the long coattails of the Republican wins, the "sweeping rollback of union rights has further damaged Democrats in states in which they are already reeling," i.e. Michigan and Wisconsin. Here's another problem for Democrats: By losing so badly in 2010, they lost the chance to draw, or even help to draw, the district maps in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Utah—most of the country, actually. 

The resulting gerrymandering did more than squeeze out Democrats. It cut into the numbers of seats Democrats can compete in. In states where the Democratic vote relies on non-whites and urbanites, they were packed into a minimal number of safe seats. This didn't just hurt the Democrats. If the dream is fulfilled, it will prevent the Democrats from building a moderate farm team, because there is nowhere to farm.

Last year, in a close look at the Republican takeover of Alabama, Jason Zengerle explained how Republicans completed the task of "bleaching" districts, eliminating the sort of seats where white, moderate Democrats could win by appealing to a rump of white votes and a small number of loyally Democratic black votes.

Republican mapmakers chose to work under a 2 percent maximum population deviation. This was a key distinction. Many of Alabama’s rural districts are underpopulated, and so in order to meet the 2 percent deviation, the mapmakers had to add tens of thousands of voters to them. Since many of those districts are majority-minority, and since Republicans sought to maintain the same number of majority-minority districts, that usually meant taking black voters from districts represented by white Democrats and moving them into districts represented by black ones.

Two years earlier, in The Atlantic, Robert Draper applied the same analysis to what Republicans did in North Carolina.

[The] cohort hoarded several of Raleigh’s white precincts and moved them into the 2nd District, which had been held by Democrats for 108 of the previous 110 years, until a former intensive-care nurse named Renee Ellmers rode the Tea Party wave to an upset victory in 2010. The new drawings would give the neophyte Ellmers a safe Republican district to last at least at decade. Recognizing that North Carolina’s many Democratic voters had to be put somewhere, the map­makers shoveled as many as possible into the Democratic districts of Watt and of David Price, a former Duke professor who represented the liberal bastion of Chapel Hill. Most of those Democrats, however, were stripped from the districts of the moderate Democratic incumbents Mike McIntyre, Larry Kissell, and Brad Miller. In the Democrat Heath Shuler’s 11th District, the mapmakers simply gouged out the progressive core, Asheville, and affixed it to the 10th, the state’s most Republican district over the previous 60 years.

The same story could be written about Michigan, which has 14 districts, but where Democrats are only electable now in five safe seats centered on the vote-rich southeastern part of the state. Same story in Ohio—16 districts, only four of them held by Democrats. That's been widely covered, but the particular fates of swing-seat Democrats was telling.

In Ohio, the GOP gerrymandered two Democrats, Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich, into a single district running all the way across Lake Erie.

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Meanwhile, the party's legislators largely eliminated the old Akron-based seat of Sherrod Brown, who is now a senator. His successor, Betty Sutton, was forced into a race for a Republican-leaning seat with incumbent Republican Jim Renacci.

What happened to Akron? The Democratic parts wound up in a Jackson Pollack splatter of a district covering many of the safe, black precincts from Cleveland down the highways.

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The result of all this is that Ohio's Democratic delegation to Congress is 50 percent black, and mostly urban. None of them are in particularly strong positions to vote their districts while casting crossover votes that could help them statewide.

You could make the same study of the Pennsylvania map, the Michigan map, or (again) the North Carolina map. Then you could look at who those maps have elected and unelected. Pennsylvania's Tim Holden and Jason Altmire; North Carolina's Heath Schuler and Larry Kissell; Michigan's Mark Schauer. In 2014, Schauer made a comeback attempt as the party's gubernatorial candidate, coming within 4.2 points of winning in a rotten Democratic year. No one else in the new map is seen as a credible statewide candidate; they are all in liberal bastions. And it's not much different if you drill down into state legislative seats. The Republicans didn't just destroy the Democrats for a couple of cycles. They drew districts where Republicans can train their future statewide candidates, and Democrats are left electing liberals.

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