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The Secret of How the GOP Has a Lock on the House for the Foreseeable Future

Tens of millions poured into a stealth redistricting project before the 2012 elections kept dozens of GOP Districts safe from Democratic challengers.
 
 
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If somewhere in the recesses of your mind you were wondering how, despite President Barack Obama’s re-election victory and the Democratic Party’s gains in the Senate, Republicans continue to control the House of Representatives, think redistricting.

Redistricting is the process that adjusts the lines of a state’s electoral districts, theoretically based on population shifts, following the decennial census. Gerrymandering is often part and parcel of redistricting. According to the Rose Institute of State and Local Governments at Claremont McKenna College, Gerrymandering is done “to influence elections to favor a particular party, candidate, ethnic group.”

Over the past few years, as the Republican Party has gained control over more state legislatures than Democrats. And, it has turned redistricting into a finely-honed, well-financed project. That has virtually insured their control over the House. “While the Voting Rights Act strongly protects against racial gerrymanders, manipulating the lines to favor a political party is common,” the Rose Institute’s Redistricting in America website points out.

ProPublica’s Olga Pierce, Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer recently reported, in a piece titled “How Dark Money Helped Republicans Hold the House and Hurt Voters,” that “Republicans had a years-long strategy of winning state houses in order to control each state's once-a-decade redistricting process,” That strategy helped the GOP put a hammerlock on its goal of creating safe Republican districts that would allow it to control of the House.

“The Republican effort to influence redistricting overall was spearheaded by a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee [RSLC], which has existed since 2002,” ProPublica reported. “For most of that time, it was primarily a vehicle for donors like health care and tobacco companies to influence state legislatures, key battlegrounds for regulations that affect corporate America. Its focus changed in 2010 when Ed Gillespie, former counselor to President George W. Bush, was named chairman. His main project: redistricting.”

Under Gillespie’s leadership, the RSLC launched a project called the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, “to influence state races throughout the country.” In 2010, the RSLC had raised $30 million to pursue what Karl Rove had discussed earlier that year in a Wall Street Journal article headlined, “The GOP Targets State Legislatures,” and subtitled, "He who controls redistricting can control Congress."

The “Final REDMAP Report,” dated December 21, 2010 and posted on the Redistricting Majority Project website, pointed out that “Twenty legislative bodies which were previously split or under Democratic control are now under Republican control. This includes key chambers where the RSLC devoted significant resources, including the Michigan House, New York Senate, Ohio House, Pennsylvania House and the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate.”

The report also noted that “In comparison to past elections, Republicans had more success than either party has seen in modern history. Republicans gained nearly 700 seats on Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, outperforming the 628-seat Democratic gains in 1974, 472-seat Republican gains of 1994 and more than doubling the 322-seat Democratic gains of 2006. Before Election Day 2010, Democrats controlled 60 state legislative chambers to the Republicans’ 36. After the November 2nd elections, Democrats control 40 chambers, Republicans control 55 chambers, two remain tied and one (NE) is unicameral/non-partisan.”

The “Final REDMAP report” wasn’t shy about how some of its $30 million was spent, noting that it had “invested $18 million after Labor Day, alone”:

  • “Spent $1.4 million targeting four New York State Senate seats, winning two and control of the New York State Senate.”
  • “Spent nearly $1 million in Pennsylvania House races, targeting and winning three of the toughest races in the state (House Districts 39, 54, 130).”
  • “Spent nearly $1 million in Ohio House races, targeting six seats, five of which were won by Republicans. Notably, President Obama carried five of these six legislative districts in 2008.”
  • “Spent $1 million in Michigan working with the Michigan House Republican Campaign Committee and Michigan Republican Party to pick up 20 seats.”
  • “Spent $750,000 in Texas as part of an effort that resulted in 22 House pick-ups.”
  • “Spent $1.1 million in Wisconsin to take control of the Senate and Assembly, including spending nearly $500,000 to target Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker. The RSLC was the only group to target Decker who was defeated soundly by Republican Pam Galloway.”
  • “Committed resources to Colorado (more than $550,000), North Carolina (more than $1.2 million), and Alabama ($1.5 million).”
  • “The RSLC also invested more than $3 million across a number of other states including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, Washington, Nevada, New Jersey and Oregon.”

Ultimately, weighted redistricting – which is done by both political parties -- allowed for Republicans to continue to control the House of Representatives even though Democratic congressional candidates received a million more votes than the GOP’s congressional candidates.

Dark Money Funds GOP Redistricting Project

The Republican Party did not build the highway leading to the U.S. House of Representatives by themselves. ProPublica’s investigation “found that the GOP relied on opaque nonprofits funded by dark money, supposedly nonpartisan campaign outfits, and … corporate donations to achieve Republican-friendly maps throughout the country.”

Millions of dollars was raised: “Two tobacco giants, Altria and Reynolds, each pitched in more than $1 million to the main Republican redistricting group, as did [Karl] Rove's super PAC, American Crossroads; Walmart and the pharmaceutical industry also contributed. Other donors, who gave to the nonprofits Republicans created, may never have to be disclosed.”

According to ProPublica, “To fund the work, the Republican State Leadership Committee used its previously dormant nonprofit arm, the State Government Leadership Foundation. Such dark money groups are increasingly popular because they are allowed to keep secret the identity of their donors. Federal tax law permits them to do this as long as they pledge that politics is not their primary focus.

“Flush with anonymous donors' cash, the Foundation paid $166,000 to hire the GOP's pre-eminent redistricting experts, according to tax documents. The team leader was Tom Hofeller, architect of Republican-friendly maps going back decades.”

PtoPublica reported that Hofeller's “team was paid with dark money and [since] the redistricting process is so secretive, it is hard to know the full extent of its activities.” Team Hofeller “provided technical assistance to an aide to Rep. Paul Ryan as he drew new districts that favored Republicans. In Missouri, Hofeller was the sole witness called by attorneys representing the Republican legislators who drew the maps there.” And Hofeller also concentrated his efforts on North Carolina.

Perhaps no other state was transformed as much as North Carolina. As ProPublica detailed, dark money groups affiliated with longtime Republican Party funder Art Pope, who ProPublica called “the most influential conservative donor in the state,” worked its magic. Not only did Pope donate heavily to the GOP’s redistricting project, he threw a bundle of cash into the re-election campaign of Justice Paul Newby, which ultimately guaranteed that the 4-3 GOP majority on the state Supreme Court would continue, virtually assuring that any challenge to redistricting would be rebuffed.

In a piece earlier this year for The Nation titled “How the GOP Is Resegregating the South,” Ari Berman pointed out that redistricting, as conducted in North Carolina, is an extension of the GOP’s Southern strategy, “as Republicans attempt to turn this racially integrated swing state into a GOP bastion, with white Republicans in the majority and black Democrats in the minority for the next decade.”

Berman ominously noted that “In virtually every state in the South, at the Congressional and state level, Republicans — to protect and expand their gains in 2010 — have increased the number of minority voters in majority-minority districts represented overwhelmingly by black Democrats while diluting the minority vote in swing or crossover districts held by white Democrats.”

While 2010’s redistricting resulted in keeping the Republican Party’s electoral hopes alive, voter suppression efforts engineered mostly by GOP-controlled state legislatures were largely ineffective this time around. However, expect more voter suppression efforts in years to come.

And, there’s another electoral scheme the GOP is kicking around; gerrymandering the electoral college. Instead of the winner of the majority of votes in a state receiving all of that state’s electoral votes, those votes would be divided on the basis of congressional districts. In such swing states as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia, where Obama won largely because of big city turnout, Romney, who won more congressional districts, would have received the majority of electoral votes.

Gerrymandering the electoral college could become the Republican Party’s strategic push for 2016. In that case, chalk up another victory for the GOP’s redistricting project.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column, "Conservative Watch," documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.