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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Sorting Out A Few Straw Men

By Ed Kilgore
Batting cleanup here, I’d like to note there’s something of a “myth” underlying the “redistricting myth.” It’s that most of the discussion of redistricting reform (a) stipulates redistricting as the primary cause of the decline in competitive legislative contests, and (b) is motivated by the desire to explain away Republican control of the U.S. House, and excuse Democratic timidity in challenging it.
Not being a political scientist, I’m not that familiar with the academic literature on redistricting. But most of us who have promoted redistricting reform as a worthy priority for Democrats don’t deny that factors like ideological realignment, incumbent power, and money have contributed to the decline in competitive districts, and would agree with Krasno and Abramowitz that Democrats have to make their own luck regardless of the districting landscape. In other words, the “myth” Krasno attacks is something of a straw man.
I have read some of Alan Abramowitz’s work on this subject, and have to say that his sole focus on turnover trends in the first election after decennial redistricting makes his argument less convincing than would otherwise be the case; it ignores both extended redistricting incidents and less immediate effects on incumbents (e.g., the wave of endangered Democrats who retired in 1994). I’d also be interested in learning if there’s any significant research on state legislative redistricting, where the technological ability to gerrymander districts is reinforced by the blatant conflict of interest involved in self-mapping. The complete elimination of competitive state legislative races in Florida and California since the last redistricting is pretty hard to blame on any other factor.
More importantly, Thomas Schaller is spot-on in arguing that even if redistricting is not a major cause of uncompetitive districts, it could represent a major solution. Entrenched incumbents can be exposed to greater competition; parties can be encouraged to recruit more salable candidates; the battleground can be expanded simply by reducing the safe behind-the-lines areas.
It’s a separate question, of course, as to whether large-D Democratic interests as well as small-d democratic values would be advanced through a systemic effort to increase competition in any one state or nationally. I would hope there is some residual sentiment that the two ought to coincide.
But I hope discussions like this one do not succeed in squelching the debate over redistricting reform. The next decennial round of map-making is now just ahead, and the U.S. Supreme Court has now ensured that mid-decade re-redistricting will likely become a familiar part of the political landscape. So we Democrats need to make up our minds how we feel about redistricting as a positive strategic exercise-not as an excuse for past defeats. Lord knows Republicans will continue to use redistricting as a partisan tool as ruthlessly as they have in this decade.
In any event, it would be helpful to disentangle redistricting from the very different issue of national targeting of congressional districts. I don’t doubt the DCCC has been too pessimistic in targeting in the recent past. But let’s not forget objective reality as a factor. To read some bloggers, you’d think the reason we are having a debate over targeting 70 or 100 or 200 enemy districts is simply because energized activists have the courage to take the fight to the opponent, and the DC establishment is reluctantly going along. Actually, the expanded battlefield represents little more than the political consequences of Republican misgovernment, making relatively safe GOP seats vulnerable. There are always limits to what activists, party committees, candidates or strategists can accomplish. The relative ability of Democrats to produce results in the real world of governing will have more to do with our future success than all the other factors combined.

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