So far the Republican leadership in the House has found no way to quell or mollify the right-wing rebellion of the “Shutdown Caucus” that toppled a speaker and still roils Congress. But citizen reformers may have stumbled on the way out: Fix gerrymandering.
While the media has focused on the demands of the rebel group to weaken the House leadership still further, it has missed a crucial piece of breaking news. Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, the candidate for House speaker endorsed by the rebel faction, has just seen his congressional district cut out from under him by a Florida court ruling against Republican gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering? Mention it and most of the current generation of political reporters roll their eyes, dismissing it as an age-old and therefore irrelevant political malady.
But they are missing a central point: One root cause of the mutiny that ousted Speaker John Boehner and blocked House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is the Great Republican Gerrymander of 2011, which helped elect and now protects the 45 ideological insurgents in the House.
Their congressional districts were engineered so starkly in their favor that in the 2014 midterm elections, they beat their Democratic opponents by an average 38 percentage points, a staggering margin. Only two had competitive general election races. Three had districts with such a lock for the Republican nominee that no Democrat even bothered to run.
Those protected monopolies back home give the Republican rebels a rare kind of political immunity. They can overthrow a speaker or bring Congress to a halt without fear of retribution from either the party leadership or the voters. Partisan gerrymandering and party primaries with shockingly low turnouts, mainly of party loyalists and extremist voters, virtually guarantee their re-election, even if their brinkmanship offends the majority of American voters.
Forty of the rebel band, mostly organized now in the Freedom Caucus, come from GOP-gerrymandered states. All but one or two are very junior members of Congress, from the tea party class of 2010 and from the “RedMap” classes of 2012 and 2014.
“RedMap” is the code name that Republican Party leaders gave to their secret nationwide campaign to dominate the once-a-decade redistricting process in 2011 by capturing majority control of as many state legislatures as possible in the 2010 election.
RedMap was inspired by Karl Rove, the GOP campaign guru, who opined pragmatically, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.” Adopting the Rove formula, the GOP invested $30 million in legislative races, largely unnoticed by the national Democratic Party, and scored sweeping gains. Nationwide, Republicans picked up 675 legislative seats, gaining control of legislatures in states that held 40 percent of all House seats, versus Democrats, with only 10 percent. (The rest were under split control.)
That set up gerrymandering on an unprecedented scale. Never before had any party implemented gerrymandering as a national strategy. And never before had party tacticians and consultants been armed with 21st-century computer software, enabling them to carve up districts with such precision – down to the individual street and house.
The payoff was immediate and palpable. As the RedMap team later bragged, the GOP lost the presidency and the Senate in 2012 and lost the nationwide popular vote for the House, but nevertheless came out with a 33-seat majority in the House.
The key, RedMap’s architects trumpeted, was GOP gerrymandering in pivotal states such as Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
But there was a catch. The Republicans were about to be hoisted on their own petard. The Great Gerrymander of 2011 that helped cement the party’s House majority also embedded the rump faction of anti-government extremists that toppled Boehner and now faces whomever becomes his successor.
It will take more than a change of faces in the House leadership to resolve this stalemate. Fundamental political reforms are needed, and they need to come from outside Washington – at the state level.
California offers a roadmap, with its independent redistricting commission. But Florida offers a second model. And Florida is a vital testing ground because its Republican gerrymandering in 2010 produced six of today’s House rebels, more than any other state, and its gerrymander system has been challenged by citizen reformers.
In 2010, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other civic groups enlisted enough public support to put on the ballot and then pass a statewide referendum barring partisan gerrymandering “with the intent to favor or disfavor” either political party or to protect incumbents. When the Republican-dominated legislature ignored that mandate, citizens groups filed suit.
This summer, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the Republican gerrymander of 2011 was blatantly partisan and unconstitutional. It ordered the legislature to redraw eight of the state’s congressional districts. Just a week ago, a circuit court in Florida rejected the legislature’s new maps as inadequate and adopted some proposals from citizens groups. Now, the court-approved maps threaten to scramble several Florida districts and unseat at least three incumbents, including the rebel choice for speaker, Webster.
In all, moves against gerrymandering are underway in more than 20 states. California and Arizona have set up independent citizen commissions to do redistricting. Seven more states have set up bipartisan commissions, some led by nonpartisan chairs.
Action is underway elsewhere. In seven states, including Florida, gerrymandering has been challenged in the courts, and in yet another six states, either political leaders or citizen groups have mounted efforts to modify traditional gerrymandering or throw it out entirely.
For the nation as a whole, the question is whether the continuing turmoil in the House and shock over Boehner’s downfall will generate enough popular momentum to alter the partisan bias long built into American elections by both parties. Otherwise, chances are, the House will continue to be crippled by a gerrymander-protected minority.
Hedrick Smith is a former Washington Bureau chief of The New York Times and executive editor of the informational reform website reclaimtheamericandream.org.