Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina is “ground zero” for a new national Democratic Party push to win state legislative seats around the country between now and the 2020 Census, former attorney general Eric Holder and N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper said Saturday.
These Democrats hope to counter gains Republicans secured in 2010, when a wave election swept the GOP into power not just in Congress, but in the legislatures that draw the congressional and legislative maps every 10 years.
Draw the maps, decide how voters are divvied up using computer software that knows how people tend to vote, and you can draw districts that lean so heavily left or right that the other side has little hope in a general election.
“This is the most gerrymandered state in the country,” Holder said Saturday, after headlining the state party’s annual fundraising dinner.
Former President Barack Obama tapped Holder last year to head the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which will pump millions into statehouse elections between now and the 2021 redraws. The strategy borrows from the GOP’s Project REDMAP, which helped Republicans capture statehouse majorities in 2010.
That the efforts mirror each other didn’t stop the state GOP from jumping on the Democratic Party’s effort as a liberal hack job this week. The party sent out a blast ahead of Holder’s visit calling him “the leader of a new ultra liberal group looking to politically influence gerrymandering across the United States.”
If successful, Holder said Democrats will not abuse their power like Republicans did. The U.S. Supreme Court has since struck down GOP maps in a number of states, including North Carolina, which is under a court-order to redraw statehouse maps ahead of the 2018 legislative elections.
Gov. Roy Cooper said he could speak for North Carolina Democrats Saturday to promise that, if they take majorities in the N.C. House and Senate, they’ll move to a non-partisan redistricting process that cedes the drawing process – now handled by legislators and the consultants they bring in – to an independent commission.
“You can put it in the bank,” Cooper said.
Will it work?
How effectively a national fundraising effort can influence local legislative races is an open question.
Project REDMAP said it sank $1.2 million into North Carolina ahead of the 2010 elections, which saw Republicans take the N.C. House and Senate for the first time in more than 100 years.
Paul Stam, who rose to House majority leader in those elections, said this week that he remembered meeting with emissaries of the national effort, but it was candidate recruitment, grassroots campaigning, targeted spending and the anti-Obama, pro-Tea Party wave that carried the day.
Nationally, Republicans took control of 21 new legislative chambers that year. Project REDMAP raised about $30 million, and the goal for 2020 is $125 million.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee has not released a fundraising goal.
In North Carolina, groundwork for 2010 was laid in the 2008 elections, Stam said. House Republicans started pooling campaign money and focused on finding good candidates in winnable districts.
“It was nothing magical about it,” Stam said. “In 2008 we had our first really coordinated House campaign.
“(In 2010) we didn’t spend any money on unwinnable races and focused like a laser on 16 districts.”
At Saturday’s night’s Unity Dinner – renamed this year after years as the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner – Cooper said Democrats should have candidates for every House and Senate race in the state.
“I don’t want there to be a single open race,” he said.
The totality of victory Republicans won in 2010 shocked North Carolina politics, and those races were won on maps drawn by Democratic majorities. Asked whether the GOP caught Democrats flat-footed, Stam said that would be “an over-generalization.”
“But we certainly caught most of them flat footed,” he said.
“They were easy targets,” Stam said. “Easy targets.”
Republicans hold 74 of 120 seats in the N.C. House and 35 of 50 Senate seats, a veto-proof majority that can block Cooper’s legislative priorities.
The court-ordered redraw should produce “marginally better” maps, Cooper said Saturday, but Stam said it may not hurt Republicans like many think. Ostensibly these maps will be reworked based on 2010 Census numbers, but “we have very smart people who know demographics and where people have moved,” Stam said.
“That allows people who draw the maps to tune them up, so they’re even better,” he said.
North Carolina is one of a few states where the governor cannot veto maps, meaning a simple majority in both chambers approves them: Sixty-one members in the House, 26 in the Senate.
“I would see it very unlikely we would go below 61, but that’s a long way away,” Stam, who left the House last year, said in a telephone interview this week.
Democrats have been trying to catch up through the courts since the GOP washed them out in 2010, filing lawsuits in North Carolina and other states in a coordinated effort to hack away at Republican-drawn maps. One law firm, Perkins Coie, has headlined many of these cases, and lead attorney Mark Elias was also Hillary Clinton’s general counsel in the last presidential election.
The cases take years to work through the system. But four of the nine congressional seats that Democrats picked up in 2016 came from districts redrawn in Virginia and Florida due to lawsuits, National Democratic Redistricting Committee spokesman Jared Leopold said.
Trump, Trump, Trump
Long-time Democratic strategist Gary Pearce questioned whether the national campaign had much to do with 2010’s results in North Carolina.
Waves are waves, and Pearce likened political consultants to ants on a log rolling down the river.
“I am dubious about all these claims that, ‘Oh we had this great strategy and it worked just like a charm in 2010,” he said. “It ain’t the ant. It’s the river.”
Mid-term elections typically don’t go well for the president’s party, and Democrats are hoping that trend holds next year in a major way with President Donald Trump in office. But even if the tide is with you, you want to maximize it, Pearce said.
The ballroom was packed Saturday night. N.C. Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said the night raised more money than any similar party event has before. Holder laid out the stakes in a 20-minute speech, quoting from Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis,” written during the American Revolution.
“It all goes back to how those maps are drawn,” Holder said. “This fight is fundamentally about saving our democracy.”