Kelly Ward is determined not to bang her head, politically, against the wall. She spent four years running the Democrats' House Campaign Committee where, thanks to the Republicans' prodigious gerrymandering of congressional districts, she made little progress.
Convinced that under the current structure Democrats have little chance to win a majority in the House, party heavyweights, including former President Barack Obama, have launched the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) with Ward as executive director. Working with other party organizations, the group is targeting governor's and state legislative races in 2018 and 2020 with the ultimate aim of making Democrats competitive in the next redistricting after the 2020 census.
In most states, the legislature, often subject to the governor's approval, sets boundaries for state legislative and congressional districts. After losing the presidency in 2008, Republicans did this with spectacular success: they now hold 29 governorships and control legislatures in two dozens states with 800 more lawmakers than eight years ago. The House of Representatives added 63 more Republicans as well.
Population patterns -- Democrats tend to live in dense counties -- and the natural appeal of the opposition party were factors. But, Ward notes, redistricting played a decisive role. "They've cheated their way to power," Ward charges.
Turning things around will take longer than one election cycle, of course. But it starts in some of the biggest battlegrounds in the nation. While Democrats can't even begin to hope for winning majorities in the state legislatures of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio, all four states are choosing governors in 2018 -- and Virginia's will be chosen next fall. That's where Ward plans to focus her group's energy and resources.
Democrats will continue mounting legal challenges, which have won several seats when courts determined redistricting plans were racially biased or otherwise flawed.
Republicans, however, are skeptical Democrats will do much better this cycle, saying they've simply outsmarted and outworked their rivals.
If the Democrats fall short, it won't be for lack of urgency. Former Attorney Eric Holder joined the NDRC as chair after serving as one of Obama's most trusted lieutenants. "The Democrats took our eye off the ball; we didn't realize the importance of redistricting," he said. Now, grassroots activists are energized, donors are coming through, and Obama has committed to speak out and raise money, Holder added.
The former president owes it to the party. While he enjoyed policy successes and left office riding a wave of popularity, he neglected party building for years.
After 2008, Republicans brought a new level of skill, sophistication and sleaze to the redistricting effort. In a half-dozen important states, mapping mavens wielding demographics and data redrew districts, making it almost impossible for Democrats.
In the inelegantly titled "Ratf--cked," David Daley interviewed the architects of this legitimate skullduggery.
In Pennsylvania, he reports, one district is so contorted it resembles Disney figures -- "Donald Duck kicking Goofy." One residence's front yard is in a different district than the backyard. In a state that narrowly went for Trump after going decisively for Obama four years before, Republicans control 13 of the 18 House seats and dominate the state legislature.
The four large Philadelphia suburbs vote decisively Democratic. Yet they are represented by three Republicans. There are similar pattern in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and North Carolina. All due to shrewd redistricting.
Thanks to court rulings that unleashed a torrent of special interest money on politics, Republicans poured millions, much of it secretive or unreported, into these redistricting efforts.
They also got down and dirty in state legislative races that usually receive less attention. A Pennsylvania state Senator was accused, falsely, of sticking taxpayers with a $600 million library. Daley notes resurgent North Carolina Republicans, perhaps the most amoral political party in the country, played the ugly race card in one contest and likened a Democratic legislator to a prostitute in another.
Winning these state races set the terms for congressional redistricting done with equal efficiency. It's estimated Democrats would have to win the overall vote for House candidates by six or seven points to eke out a narrow majority.
This has governing, as well as political, ramifications. These safe districts -- on both sides -- produce politicians less willing to seek consensus or compromise. That deepening congressional dysfunction was a constant strain on Obama's presidency -- and may hit Trump now. For example, the political consideration for most of the conservative members now threatening to vote against the Republican replacement of Obamacare, charging it's too liberal, is a primary challenge from the right.
It's not that Democrats are more noble when it comes to redistricting; when in power, they gerrymandered too. They just haven't had as much power or as much skill. That's why the best approach to resetting the grand chessboard of American politics is a bipartisan commission. Such panels have worked well in a handful of states like Arizona and California.
For now, Eric Holder and Kelly Ward vow Democrats are waking up and won't be blindsided this time. "My role is to make redistricting sexy," said Holder.