The House Majority and the Governors

by John Lawrence

Much of the focus about control of Congress is centered on the close battle for the Senate and the challenges facing House Democrats in 2014. But the key to future House control may well rest with the outcome of key gubernatorial races next Tuesday, races that could impact, in multiple ways, the prospects for a Democratic House majority in years to come.

Three major structural problems confront Democrats who yearn to return soon to the House majority, restore Nancy Pelosi to a productive speakership, and provide President Hillary Clinton with a Congress that favorably responds to the policy initiatives on which she may well be elected in 2016.

  • Gerrymandering: A fact of political life that may be susceptible to minimization, but has defied various reform efforts for over two hundred years, since the creation of the nefarious “dragon district” in 1812.
  • Population concentration: Democrats tend to pack themselves into cities, providing massive majorities for districts crammed with likeminded voters, but starving the suburbs and rural areas of enough Democrats to be competitive. As a result, Democrats tend to win overwhelming margins in elections with votes they don’t need; whether you win with 55% or 70% of the vote, you still get a House voting card. These disproportionate districts are terrific for incumbents but do not reflect the distribution of House seats state-wide. Overall, Democrats outpolled Republicans in 2012 House races by 1.5 million votes, but remained a minority in the lower chamber. It is not unusual for Democrats in big states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan to win a clear majority of votes cast for President only to fall far short in the individual districts.
  • Voting Rights Act Uncertainties: Since the Supreme Court eviscerated the VRA last year, it may be increasingly difficult to ensure that fair districts are created and minority voters fairly participate. In addition, as a result of the VRA, in part, many minority Democratic voters since the 1990s have been packed into districts that ensure the election of black and Latino legislators by wide margins, but which leave the remaining districts in the state with too few Democrats to be competitive. Disseminating the minority voters more equitably would result in many more competitive House districts, but may well reduce the chance that minority candidates would represent them since it is still the rare majority white district that elects a minority candidate.

Another major factor, however, will be the person, and party, occupying each governorship when the next reapportionment occurs following the 2020 election. In many states, controlling the governor’s mansion will have a significant impact on the district lines drawn by Legislature that will determine the design of the House for the subsequent decade. With a sympathetic Legislature, a governor can influence reapportionment to benefit his or her party; with divided government in the state, a governor can veto a plan that is disadvantageous to his or her party.

Many states electing governors next Tuesday bear careful watching, even though a number of these governors may be termed out in 2018 and no longer in office to affect the reapportionment process in 2021-2022. A loss by an incumbent Republican governor, as may well occur in Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin would result in a Democratic governor who, learning from the mistakes of his predecessor, might well realize the benefits of incumbency and win re-election in 2018, ensuring that a Democratic governor oversees reapportionment.

Other states may re-elect a Republican governor this year, such as Ohio, Florida, and Georgia, who would then be precluded from running again in 2018, depriving Republicans of the benefits of incumbency. Close races in these states this year signify a credible state Democratic party and, as in Georgia, a Democratic candidate who may well re-emerge four years hence with wide recognition and a sound campaign infrastructure. Such a retread might stand a better chance of victory when running for an open seat rather than against a Republican incumbent. Ohio is a bit of an anomaly, for while John Kasich looks to be cruising to a major victory, he has drawn a weak opponent, although Democrats in the state remain a potent force.

By contrast, several key Democratic governors will win by substantial margins this year such as Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York, and while they likely will probably not be in office in 2021, their states are Democratic powerhouses that likely will remain in Democratic hands after they have moved along. There are other Democratic governors who could lose, in Illinois and Colorado particularly, elevating Republicans to a key role in reapportionment should they perform well and win re-election in 2018; however these governorships will almost certainly be highly contested in 2018 since the current incumbent (and threatened) governors have unique vulnerabilities that may well not translate to the next Democratic contender.

Two key governorships are not on the ballot this year because they held off-year elections last year: New Jersey and Virginia. In the case of the former, it is highly plausible that a Democrat will succeed Chris Christie, who won against a highly flawed Democratic incumbent in this deep blue state. And while Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe cannot run for a second term, Republicans have been having a difficult time in state-wide races in the Old Dominion, a trend which may well continue

The bottom line is that in a host of states with large Democratic electorates that voted for Barack Obama twice and will likely vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 should she run, Democrats could find themselves well-positioned for 2018 and the reapportionment that will follow. In many of these states, a fair drawing of the lines will result in more competitive seats than is the case at present, yielding races that may elect those who are less beholden to the hard core base of either party which controls so much power in one-party districts where tiny turnouts by the hardest core base determines nominations and elections.

That is not to say the reapportionment process will be without political undertones; despite judges, commissions and other contrivances created to avoid the influence of party in this time-honored process. As it has often been noted, you can’t take politics out of politics. But perhaps the process could be made more balanced and districts might better reflect the true distribution of voters. Governors will play a key role in those decisions, which is why it pays to keep a sharp eye on the race for the governors’ mansions next Tuesday.