Monday’s Supreme Court decision on how much politics can be involved in the decennial process of redrawing district lines across the country might not, at first glance, seem like much.
After all, the court decided not to decide – refusing to even consider the question as to whether maps drawn by Democrats in Maryland and Republicans in Wisconsin were unfairly drawn. Instead, Chief Justice John Roberts sent the question back to the lower courts to allow for further consideration.
But before you look away from this story, remember the words of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “I can always choose, but I must know that if I do not choose, that is still a choice.” And the Supreme Court’s decision to not set a standard for what a too-political redistricting map looks like has considerable consequences – raising the stakes for Democrats in the coming 2018 election.
In November, there are 36 gubernatorial races on the ballot – 26 of which states are currently controlled by Republicans including massive (and massively important) battleground states like Florida and Ohio. Win in November, and you are in office through (at least) 2022.
In virtually all of those states, the governor has a vote – or a veto – on whatever map the state legislature produces following the next census in 2020 and the redistricting of the country’s congressional (and state legislative) lines that follows. Currently, Republicans have total control – governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature – in 25 of the 50 states, according to statistics maintained by the National Conference of State Legislators. Democrats have total control in just seven. Another 17 are split control, with one party in control of the governorship and the other with a majority in at least one of the state legislative bodies.
What the Supreme Court said Monday is that it isn’t likely to decide the debate over how much politics is too much politics in redistricting anytime soon. Yes, the court could decide to hear a similar case involving Republican line-drawing in North Carolina this fall. And the justices could well use that case as the vehicle to put down a marker.
But that’s a “but.” An “if.” A “maybe.” And based on the court’s unwillingness to step into the lower court fight over the Maryland and Wisconsin maps, there’s certainly no guarantee it will agree to take up the North Carolina case.
The only surefire way that Democrats can guarantee they have a voice in the state-by-state redrawing of congressional lines is to win governor races (and state legislative control) in November. In short: The already-high stakes for the 2018 midterms just got that much higher.
To see what the impact of major gains at the state level can mean for the long-term fate of a party, Democrats need only look across the aisle. In the 2010 election, Republicans picked up almost 700 state legislative seats – the largest increase in more than seven decades – and won governor’s races in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. As The Washington Post’s Dan Balz noted at the time:
“Before the midterm elections, Democrats controlled 27 state legislatures outright. Republicans were in charge in 14 states, and eight states were split. (Nebraska, which has a single legislative chamber, is officially nonpartisan). Today, Republicans control 26 state legislatures, Democrats 17, and five have split control.”
Most people remember 2010 as a very good election for Republicans. But it was more than that. It was a very good election at the best possible time to have a very good election. That turned a very good election into a generational election – an election that changed the course of the two parties at the House and state level for, at minimum, the next decade.
Democrats need 2018 to be that sort of election for their side. No matter how much the country as a whole moves toward them – and away from Trump – between now and 2021, the party simply cannot afford to be shut out of the redistricting process in as many states as it was eight years ago.
Sure, the court might change their fate with a single ruling. But there’s only one way to ensure that what happened to Democrats in 2011-2018 doesn’t happen again for the next decade: Win governorships and state legislative seats by the bushel-full this fall.