In the last couple of weeks, there have been big developments on redistricting reform in three states: California, Ohio and Colorado.In Calfornia, a state judge tossed a Schwarzenneger-backed redistricting initiative off the ballot for a November special election. A federal district judge stayed the order pending a hearing, but it doesn’t look good for the much-hyped but (IMHO) flawed proposal, which mainly relies on a procedural mechanism of turning redistricting over to a panel of retired judges, without much in the way of new guidelines for map-drawing. Ah-nold has been negotiating with Assembly Democrats on a plan to displace the initiative with a legislatively sponsored reform plan, but there hasn’t been much news about that of late.In Ohio, a group of good-government groups and (mostly Democratic) legislators are conducting a frantic and potentially successful petition drive (which must succeed by August 1) to get a package of three initiatives on the November 2005 ballot that includes a redistricting reform plan, along with a campaign finance reform effort and a provision seeking to de-politicize Ohio’s highly suspect election administration system. The redistricting initiative is interesting: in sharp contrast to California’s initiative, it places a very high premium on competitive districts (while respecting Voting Rights Act considerations), and essentially solicits a variety of plans that will be rated according to the extent that they create the maximum number of competitive congressional and state legislative districts, while ensuring overall partisan balance statewide. The package of reforms in Ohio is being fueled by widespread public disgust with the ongoing and ever-escalating news of scandals implicating the state’s entrenched Republican leaders in the executive and legislative branches.And in Colorado, a three-judge federal panel yesterday rejected a suit by Republicans to reinstate a 2001 re-redistricting of congressional districts by what was then a GOP-controlled legislature. And though I haven’t been able to find the opinion yet, it sounds like the judges expressed more than a little contempt for the Republicans’ argument that their First Amendment rights were violated when a court drew an earlier map after the legislature failed to enact a plan, triggering a state constitutional ban on re-redistricting.Meanwhile, down in Florida, my informants say the effort there to get a package of redistricting reforms on the November 2006 ballot is rolling along nicely on a wave of positive newspaper editorial endorsements and a solid petition drive, led by former Education Secretary and Senate candidate Betty Castor. As in Ohio, the Florida reforms would take place immediately upon enactment. And if you recall that Florida and Ohio represent two of the five states (the others being Pennsylvania, Michigan, and thanks to the Great Texas Power Grab of 2003, the Lone Star State) whose peculiar map-drawing has had a lot to do with GOP control of the U.S. House, this is good news on both small-d and big-D democratic grounds.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
After absorbing a lot of Democratic gloom-and-doom about the midterms, I offered some silver lining at New York:
The 2022 midterms don’t look great for Democrats, who will try to buck history by hanging on to super-slim congressional majorities. Thanks to the particular lay of the land, Democrats have a decent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. But the House? Not so much: The two times since the New Deal when the president’s party won net House seats in a midterm (1998 and 2002), the president in question had sky-high job-approval ratings. Even if you believe Joe Biden’s plunge in popularity has been stemmed or even turned around a bit, he’s not going to have 60 percent-plus approval in November 2022 unless really crazy things happen. There’s just too much partisan polarization for that these days.
Thankfully for Democrats, even if they lose their congressional majorities next year, Biden himself won’t be an underdog for reelection in 2024. After all, the last two Democratic presidents were reelected after historically terrible midterms. Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010. Yes, they had bigger majorities going into those elections than Democrats have now. But they lost the national House popular vote by an identical 6.8 percent in both midterms, which is pretty bad, particularly since Democrats suffer from a voter-inefficiency problem in House elections (too many voters concentrated in too few districts).
It’s possible for a president’s party to lose a midterm so badly that bouncing back in the next cycle is all but impossible. Consider the man whose unique comeback accomplishment Donald Trump will be emulating if he runs in 2024, Grover Cleveland. The president Cleveland defeated in an 1892 rematch, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican whose party lost an incredible 93 House seats in the 1890 midterms. This, mind you, was at a time when the House had only 332 members, which means the GOP lost over half their caucus in one cycle (an even worse percentage than in 1894, when Democrats lost a record 125 House seats during the midterm after Cleveland’s comeback triumph). In this era of polarization, nothing like that is going to happen to Democrats in 2022.
Looking more broadly at the power of incumbency, there have been 13 sitting presidents since World War II who were on the general election ballot. Nine of them won. The four losers all faced special circumstances. Gerald Ford had not previously been elected to anything more than the U.S. House; he ascended to the vice-presidency and then the presidency when disgraced predecessors resigned, and he pardoned the president who appointed him, the especially disgraced Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter was caught up in a historical realignment that he had held off four years earlier by carrying his native South, which then resumed a massive Republican trend. George H.W. Bush suffered from a terrible economy but then also a party split (third-party candidate Ross Perot won a lot of previously Republican voters). And we all know about Donald J. Trump, who was impeached twice and seemed determined to offend swing voters.
In retrospect, what’s most remarkable is that Ford and Trump very nearly got reelected despite their handicaps, exhibiting not the weakness but the strength of incumbency. And it’s with that perspective that any early handicapping of a potential 2024 rematch should be considered. Trump benefited from incumbency in 2020, as will Biden in 2024. So the idea that the 45th president has some built-in advantage over the 46th — absent the renewed election coup so many of us fear — doesn’t make a lot of sense.