Fired up by stunning election victories in Virginia and New Jersey, Democrats are now dreaming of a wave election in 2018 and regaining a majority in the House of Representatives. But their dreams could be spoiled by an old nemesis – a firewall of Republican gerrymandering in a string of pivotal states from the Midwest to Dixie.
Typically, midterm elections are a boon to the out-party and perdition for the president’s party. Under both Presidents Bush, Republicans lost eight House seats in 1990 and 30 seats in 2006, though they gained eight seats in 2002. Under Obama, the midterms were disastrous for Democrats. They lost a staggering 63 House seats and six Senate seats in 2010 and took another licking in 2014, losing 34 House seats and nine Senate seats.
This year, Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats in the House and three in the Senate to regain the majority in each chamber. After this week’s anti-Trump backlash in Virginia and New Jersey, Democrats are salivating at their prospects in 2018 – for good reason. History shows that when a president’s approval rating falls below 50 percent, his party suffers a punishing blow in the midterm elections, and Trump’s approval rating is the lowest of any modern chief executive at this stage in his term – 37 percent in the latest Washington Post-ABC News Survey.
No surprise, then, that Democratic partisans cast the solid trouncing given Republicans in Virginia, not only by Democratic gubernatorial winner Ralph Northam but in down-ballot legislative elections, where Democrats captured 15 and possibly as many as 19 Republican seats, as a stinging rebuke to President Donald Trump and a warning of more GOP losses to come.
Democrats are buoyed by a Fox News Poll, taken before Tuesday’s election, reporting that when people are asked their choice for Congress in 2018, registered voters favor Democrats over Republicans by 50 percent to 35 percent. That 15-point margin in what the pollsters call “the generic vote” is much larger than the 9-point margin that favored Republicans in 2010, warning of the “tea party” wave election that swamped President Obama and vaulted Republicans into control of the House.
Despite such dismal numbers and the defection retirements of Senate Republicans such as Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, GOP political strategists such as Karl Rove, architect of two Republican presidential victories, gamely contend that their party can hang onto control of the Senate and hopefully the House, so long as not too many Republican incumbents retire and so long as the Congressional Republicans deliver a strong tax-cut package.
But despite the declared optimism of the Trump White House, Rove has clearly been jolted by the scale of the Democratic victory in Virginia, which was a much more potent victory than Hillary Clinton’s win in Virginia in 2016. The huge surge in turnout among anti-Trump Democrats and independents, Rove says, has “grave implications” for the 2018 midterm elections.
On the issues, he argues, Republicans have a chance. “Not only Republicans but independents like the Trump agenda,” Rove asserts. “What they don’t like are his tweets and his behavior. But they like his emphasis on security, fighting terrorism, pushing to repeal Obamacare and especially, tax cuts.”
Always a canny calculator of the political odds, Rove reckons that Republicans can cling to their Senate majority, now 52-48, because Democrats have more at risk, with 25 Democrats up for re-election in 2018 but only nine Republicans. Vulnerable Republican Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada, he suggests, can be offset by Republican upsets of similarly vulnerable Democratic incumbents in Missouri and North Dakota.
It’s in the House that Tuesday’s elections have unnerved the normally cool-headed Rove. What he calls “the wipe-out” in the Virginia legislative races “should set off alarm bells for Republicans.” And he portrays Trump as the Republican albatross whose rejection by many voters “threatens (GOP) congressional majorities,” as Rove put it in a new Wall Street Journal op-ed: “He must try to improve his numbers and the GOP must prepare itself for an extraordinarily tough battle.”
True enough, but there’s a warning in the Virginia victory for Democratic hopes of capturing Congress. In Virginia, Democratic candidates rolled up a tsunami of support and won an estimated 53 percent of the popular vote versus 47 percent for Republicans. But even with a few races still undecided, Republicans seemed headed for 51-seat majority in the 100-seat House of Delegates. GOP gerrymandering, done in 2011, is robbing Virginia Democrats of their “wave” victory.
Nationwide, too, Republicans have a firewall against losing the popular vote in their politically lethal gerrymandering of congressional districts after the 2010 census. In the last three congressional elections, that has proven an insurmountable obstacle to Democratic candidates. Now, it’s a last line of defense that some House Republican incumbents are evidently counting on in 2018.
This is how it happened: In the 2010 election, the GOP’s self-styled RedMap strategy flipped control of 18 legislative chambers nationwide, and put Republicans in charge of drawing the election maps for 40 percent of the House districts, especially in swing states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, and they exploited that advantage to the hilt.
The immediate payoff came in the 2012 election, when Democratic candidates for the House polled 1.5 million more votes nationwide than Republican candidates, but nonetheless, Republicans came out with a 33-seat majority in the House of Representatives.
In the most pivotal swing states, the results were jarring. The popular vote was stronger for Democrats than for Republicans in Pennsylvania, but the GOP won a 13-5 edge in the state’s House delegation; in North Carolina, Republicans won 9-4; in Michigan, 9-5; in Wisconsin, 5-3. And in states like Ohio and Virginia, with a minimal pro-Republican tilt in the popular vote, Republicans reaped lopsided seat advantages – 12-4 in Ohio, 8-3 in Virginia.
Historically, both parties have long manipulated election maps for partisan advantage. Democrats, who began it all way back in 1812, gerrymander maps in Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois. Republicans do it more widely and more effectively in politically pivotal states in the South and Midwest. Sophisticated computer software and the partisan predictability of voters now make gerrymandering an acute challenge to the fairness of U.S. elections.
After a study of redistricting nationwide over the last five decades, California political scientist Eric McGhee and University of Chicago Law Professor Nick Stephanopoulos concluded that, as Stephanopoulos put it, “the scale of gerrymandering is worse, it’s larger now than it has been in the entire modern era since the early 1970s.”
Another recent study of “Extreme Maps” by the non-partisan Brennan Center at New York University Law School, asserted that the tilt radically favors the GOP. Its authors, Laura Royden and Michael Li, concluded that “Republicans derive a net benefit of at least 16-17 congressional seats in the current Congress from partisan bias” in district maps. That is, 16-17 seats above their share of the popular vote.
The built-in Republican advantage is so stark, says Professor Stephanopoulos, that just to break even or win a tiny edge in House seats, Democrats would have to win the nationwide popular vote for the House of Representatives by a daunting 5 to 6 percent margin.
So the test of the 2018 election will be whether the typical midterm swing of the pendulum in favor of the out-party will be strong enough to overwhelm the ramparts of Republican gerrymandering that very few pundits or Democrats have begun to think about.
Hedrick Smith is former Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, author of “Who Stole the American Dream?” and executive editor of reclaimtheamericandream.org. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.