What We're Thinking

February 7, 2020

Max Meizlish

Policy Analyst
BGR Government Relations

All Politics are Local: How Local Races Impact the Congressional Majority

The 2020 census is well underway, and the outcome of this decennial undertaking will ultimately result in new state and congressional district maps. It is assumed that these maps are drawn by governors and legislators or by commissions appointed by the state. Increasingly, however, district maps are being thrown out or redrawn altogether by state judges who work with their political allies to draw the maps more to their political party’s advantage. The impact that these judges have on federal electoral outcomes is remarkable and severely underappreciated.

According to an April 2019 analysis of state and congressional district maps drawn by politicians following the 2010 census, nearly 40 percent were struck down by the courts and tossed back to partisan legislatures or redrawn by the judges presiding over them. This would be fine if the judges were largely unbiased and apolitical, but the data suggests otherwise.

Research recently published in the University of Denver’s Law & Policy journal shows that judges are “calculating political actors whose redistricting decisions have profound consequences for the dynamics of congressional elections.” And while there are bad actors on both sides of the aisle, the research suggests that “Republicans are not engaging in partisan calculation with the same regularity as Democratic judges, who systematically increase the Democratic vote share in Republican districts.” This is not to say that judges are corrupt or that they should be barred from adjudicating discrepancies in the political mapmaking process. Far from it. But these revelations highlight a pervasive problem in our body politic.

Groups such as the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) – led by former Attorney General Eric Holder – are dominating efforts to tilt the playing field in the redistricting process which Republicans dominated a decade ago through its Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP). The GOP rationale was straightforward:  Controlling the redistricting process in key states would have the greatest impact on determining how both state legislative and congressional district boundaries would be drawn. 

According to former Governor Scott Walker, who leads the National Republican Redistricting Trust, Holder’s objective today is to “sue until it’s blue.” The NDRC’s strategy is to challenge state and congressional district maps in court, giving partisan judges the opportunity to throw out the maps or rewrite them themselves. And for Democrats, the result has been an overwhelming success.

In February 2018, for instance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a new congressional district map for the state that many believed would put at risk up to ten seats won by President Trump in the 2016 election. And for a year, liberal groups in North Carolina sued the government, challenging the state’s legislative maps in hopes of redrawing district lines to their electoral favor. It is now believed Democrats could pick up as many as two new seats in the 2020 congressional race.

The NDRC has raised $52 million, dedicating much of it to breaking up single party control in states led by Republicans and supporting Democratic judges running in state supreme court races. And as a result, in 2018 alone, Democrats won state supreme court races in North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Republicans are scrambling to catch up in advance of 2020 state Supreme Court races in West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Ohio and Louisiana – states where Republicans maintain control of the legislature.

The increased involvement of groups like the NDRC in electing our country’s judges has resulted in more multi-million dollar state supreme court races than ever before. But despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of voters think political spending on judicial elections has either “some” or “a great deal” of influence on judges’ decisions, according to the National Institute of Money in Politics, more than half a billion dollars were spent in the last twenty years on contributions to state-level lower, appellate, and supreme court races – and of that, only half came from individual donors. The other half came from labor unions, corporations, political action committees, and various other special interest groups.

Both parties are building campaign war chests to support elected judges, and state and federal PACs should pay attention as the outcomes of the local races will ultimately help determine the outcome of control in state capitals and in Washington. It is a vicious cycle – and the 2020 elections are where it will all start. 

Tagged: state and local, local, elections, politics,

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