The Silver Lining

by John Lawrence

It is admittedly difficult to put much of a positive spin for Democrats on last week’s midterm election. In both the House and Senate outcomes, one sees a continued winnowing of the large Democratic majorities achieved in the mid-2000s as a result of voter disaffection with pro-war/scandal-ridden/Social Security privatizing George W. Bush congressional Republicans. As with the inflated Democratic majorities of the post-Watergate era, those big Democratic margins of the mis-2000’s – inflated further by the outpouring of young and minority voters enthused by the 2008 Obama candidacy – have frayed considerably in marginal districts that briefly fell under the spell of Democrats, or where Democratic incumbents retired and the districts elected conservatives of the Republican, rather than Democratic, stripe.

The size of the GOP margins in the House and Senate are worrisome enough that even the hoped-for (though far from certain) election of a Democratic president, with expanded voter turnout, in 2016 simply may not be sufficient to dislodge the new Republican majorities. While it will be the Republicans’ turn to defend a disproportionate number of incumbents in 2016, as Democrats were forced to do last Tuesday, the odds against Democrats rose last week because so many Senate seats were won by Republicans, inflating the number needed to regain the majority.

There are certainly opportunities. Five GOP winners in 2010, a very good year for Republicans, fall into the category of “marginal” by having secured less than 53% of the vote including Ron Johnson (WI, 52%), Mark Kirk (IL, 48%), Pat Toomey (PA, 51%), Marco Rubio (FL, 49%), and Lisa Murkowski (AK, 39%). The last two ran in three-way races and may be less vulnerable if they avoid such a multi-candidate race again.   Additionally, both John McCain (AZ) and Charles Grassley (IA), 80 and 83 respectively in 2016, could opt to retire, potentially creating competitive non-incumbent races, but both are going to enjoy being major committee chairmen in the next two years and may well choose to go one more round.

Democrats have some vulnerabilities of their own in 2016, including soon-to-be Minority Leader Harry Reid (NV), who will be 77 in 2016 and only received 50.2% of the vote in his last race, and Colorado’s Michael Bennett, originally an appointed senator who won only 47% in 2010.

The House faces even a steeper cliff given the gains of last Tuesday which created the largest House GOP majority since Herbert Hoover was in the White House. The task is made more difficult for Democrats by the combination of numerous gerrymandered seats that artificially favor Republicans, and by the concentration of large Democratic voting blocks in urban districts. Disseminating some of those voters into adjacent districts during the next reapportionment would enhance the competitiveness of many seats currently held by Republicans without jeopardizing the probable victory of a Democrats in the current safe seat (although the certainty of that Democrat’s being a minority may diminish).  But Republicans are hardly inclined to agree to such a balancing of districts, and most of the Democratic incumbents are happy with winning victories by 70% and more, if not being uncontested, even though doing so means that neighboring districts that used to be competitive and frequently represented by Democrats remain safely Republican.

So, you may be wondering, where is that “silver lining” mentioned in the title?

The answer lies in the governorships. Yes, it is true, Republicans won reelection in many of the blue-to-purple states of the Mid-West (a major exception being Pennsylvania), so how, you might ask, is that “good” news?

Many of the Republican governors elected in traditionally Democratic states will be termed out in 2018, leaving the state with a non-incumbent gubernatorial contest. In a number of those states – Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan – current GOP governors replaced Democrats, and one might reasonable anticipated a swing back to the majority party is highly possible in the next round of elections. In Georgia, Nathan Deal will be out of office after two terms, and though he replaced a Republican four years ago, Sonny Perdue was the first Republican governor of the Peach State since Reconstruction. In addition, New Jersey’s Chris Christie will be leaving the governor’s mansion in Trenton in 2017, and there is a fair chance a Democrat will be highly competitive (Christie having beaten two extremely weak Democratic nominees in this reliably blue state).

Democrats will be challenged to win the governorships in Texas, Florida, and Virginia in 2017 (the latter after a narrow win in 2013 and successive Democratic governors), but at least the latter two are possibilities, as is the case for a Democratic victory in Colorado where Gov. John Hickenlooper barely eked out re-election this year. Even in Illinois and Maryland, where Democrats lost governorships they might well have won this year, there are possibilities of a strong Democratic candidacy in 2016.

This potential for Democrats winning governorships in 2017 and 2018 is highly significant because doing so will put them in charge during the crucial reapportionment process following the 2020 census. And in each of these states, the drawing of lines for the House of Representatives (as well as state legislatures) can figure prominently in whether Democrats have a fair opportunity to win the House majority during the decade of the 2020’s.

Reversing, or correcting, the Republicans’ gerrymandering of 2012 – made possible by the big GOP victories in 2010 that gave them control in states during the reapportionment process – may not be sufficient if Democratic incumbents insist upon districts that are so stocked with Democratic voters that adjacent district lose any competitive standing.

Years ago, the Svengali of reapportionment, Congressman Phillip Burton, delivered Democrats a district they could win if they were diligent in paying attention to their constituents, not one they were guaranteed to win regardless of their actions, votes or efforts. Members who desired 65% or 70% Democratic districts were given 56% districts, and if savvy, won re-election easily while other districts were also designed to provide Democratic opportunities. That discipline did not always survive Burton for long. Following Burton’s death in 1983, I was in a room where a Democratic incumbent stalked out because their proposed district was less than 80% Democratic. If that avaricious attitude prevails, should Democrats be fortunate enough to dominate the reapportionment process in 2021-2022, the road back to the majority could be blocked until 2032.