The key takeaway from the super-heated battle for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, where Republican veteran Karen Handel beat Democratic neophyte Jon Ossoff, is that partisan gerrymandering is king. It swings elections more powerfully and reliably than a flood of MegaMoney.
Flexing their financial muscle, Democrats poured $39.2 million into the race for Ossoff, outspending the Republicans and Handel’s $24.8 million. All that Democratic money went for naught. But why?
Democrats blamed their previously youth-hero candidate for a thin a résumé and not residing in the district. They sniped at late-breaking TV images of the shooting of Congressional Republicans by a Democratic malcontent. They carped that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and her “San Francisco values” undercut Ossoff among tradition-minded Georgia voters.
But too many pundits overlook the fundamental truth. Georgia’s district had been engineered by the Republican Party’s gerrymander mapmakers in 2001 and again in 2011 to guarantee victory for Republican candidates and defeat for Democrats.
For four solid decades, Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has been red, solid red, pure red, steadily red, loyally red, predictably red. In politics, that is called “a lock” – a safe monopoly that has worked for the GOP in that district for 21 straight congressional elections.
That lock was the bounty of RedMap, the GOP’s stunningly successful campaign to capture control of as many state governments as possible in the 2010 elections. By picking up 675 legislative seats nationwide in 2010, Republicans won vital leverage in the wake of the 2010 census, when congressional seats were reapportioned and election district lines had to be redrawn.
The RedMap sweep enabled Republicans to stack the mapping of election districts in the GOP’s favor in states from Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas and Florida. Democrats did it, too, in Maryland, Illinois and Massachusetts, but in far fewer states than Republicans.
RedMap has helped Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives in 2012 with a 33-seat majority even though Democratic candidates won 1.5 million more votes nationwide than Republicans.
“Republicans derive a net benefit of at least 16-17 congressional seats in the current Congress” from partisan gerrymandering, says a new study from the nonpartisan Brennan Institute at New York University law school.
What’s more, RedMap is the gift that keeps on giving. The sophisticated software used by the Republican mapmakers enabled the GOP to carve the boundaries of election districts with such precision that those GOP-drawn district maps provide a firewall for Republicans in 2017 and beyond.
On the same day that Ossoff lost in George, Republican Ralph Norman defeated Democrat Archie Parnell, by 51 percent to 47 percent, in a special congressional election in South Carolina. Go back a decade and Democrats used to win that district easily, because they had drawn the maps in 2001.
But when the 2010 census gave South Carolina one new House seat and the election maps were redrawn, the Republican Legislature made sure that the fifth district was solidly Republican and made it easy for their man, Mike Mulvaney, to win in three elections. Despite a strong challenge by Parnell, a pro-business Democrat with a Goldman Sachs pedigree, South Carolina’s 5th District worked like a charm once again as “safe” Republican.
In Georgia, Democrats were lured into discounting the political laws of gravity by two anomalies. Donald Trump had narrowly carried that district in 2016 and Democrats believed that highly educated district voters would punish any Republican candidate for Trump’s political sins. And second, Ossoff finished first among a bipartisan field of 18 candidates in the first April primary. But in the June runoff, when both parties mobilized their legions, Republican gerrymandering paid off.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported recently that Democrats created a lock on the 6th District in 1844 and dominated it for 134 years, except for a brief period during post-Civil War Reconstruction. But ever since 1978, when an upstart college professor named Newt Gingrich broke the Democratic lock by winning an open seat election, the Republicans have had a monopoly in this district.
Gingrich had one close-call election in 1990. But otherwise, he won a string of victories with majorities of 55 percent to 71 percent. In the last seven elections, former Rep. Tom Price, now Trump’s health and human services secretary, won with at least a 60 percent majority.
Against that big built-in Republican tilt in Georgia and South Carolina, Democrats Ossoff and Parnell did strikingly well, but had little chance of winning. Democrats headed toward the 2018 midterm elections and beyond again face uphill battles against built-in Republican gerrymander advantages in at least 100 congressional districts.
The partisan locks by both parties have triggered rebellions among voters. In more than a dozen states, California among them, blatant party power politics provoked grass-roots reform movements seeking a more authentic choice for voters by turning over the job of drawing district lines to independent bipartisan commissions.
Some Democratic voters in Wisconsin and Republicans in Maryland have gone to court, and the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to consider the issue in the fall. Short of the court finding that overly partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, the people who have drawn the lines won’t be easily turned out of power.