Are California and Texas The GOP’s Congressional Bulwark?

Republicans are in trouble and they know it.  Hot off the heels of several stunning high profile losses in Alabama (Senate special election), Wisconsin (state senate) and now Pennsylvania, the party is reeling.  The party’s tried and true tactic of turning Nancy Pelosi into a boogeywoman failed last week and neither trumpeting tax reform or stressing law and order themes picked up the slack.  So Republicans are doomed to lose the House right (though not the Senate for reasons laid out here)?

Well, not so fast.  Recent events indicate the GOP might have an expected bulwark in Texas and an unexpected one in the heart of anti-Trump fervor.  California?  You would be forgiven if you are confused on the latter (more on this in a second).

The results of the Texas primaries on March 6th had to be a huge relief for the GOP and a massive letdown for Democrats.  Keep in mind ever since Wendy Davis in 2014 Democrats have talked of turning Texas blue.  Recent electoral results and the March 6th primary results put a dampener on that.

Democrats are targeting a number of Congressional seats in the state that swung hard for Clinton (TX-7, TX-23 and TX-32).  The 7th district is a suburb of Houston, the 23rd is a massive rural district which stretches all the way to the outskirts of San Antonio (Bexar county) and the 32nd is a suburb of Dallas.  In addition, Democrats are optimistic they can mobilize suburban and Hispanic voters around the Senate candidacy of Congressman Beto O’Rourke.  Reality is not as pretty as hope.

In the primary, Beto O”Rourke garnered 700,000 less votes than Senator Ted Cruz.  Supposedly Cruz is vulnerable this cycle but he sure did not show it.  Total Democratic turnout in their contested Senate primary lagged the GOP’s by almost a cool half a million voters.  In the Democratic contested 7th and 32nd district primaries GOP turnout still exceeded Democratic turnout (and these were uncontested primaries).  The only bragging rights Democrats could take away from the night was their turnout vastly exceeded the GOP’s in the 23rd (again, a largely uncontested primary).

Setting aside the strictly numbers based argument the party came away with some less than stellar winners.  DCCC targeted progressive Laura Moser advanced to a runoff.  O’Rourke’s subpar showing leaves him weakened and vulnerable and the Democratic gubernatorial primary heads into a runoff between the state’s activist wing (Lupe Valdez) and the party’s business/centrist wing (Andrew White).

Texas is a red state with a burgeoning minority population but Democrats have several problems in conquering the state.  First, the districts that swung for Clinton still elected Republican Congressmen and they did so by strong margins suggesting down-ballot loyalty is deep and real.  The primary results only confirm this.  Secondly, despite the growing minority population of the state many of these individuals are either non-citizens or too young to vote.  The same cannot be said for the GOP base.  And while Democratic turnout eclipsed their 2014 turnout by about 50 percent (keep in mind an abysmal year for the party), GOP turnout exceeded it by about 15 percent (a great year for the party) so the GOP base is growing even in the age of Trump.

But that is Texas.  California is a different beast.  Whereas Texas shifted solidly red in the 90’s the Golden State went the opposite route and only looked back with the Terminator in 2003 and 2006 (hardly a modern Republican).  Since the Terminator, California has not voted for a Republican for statewide office (2006-current) rivaling Texas’s record (1994-current) for supporting any and all statewide Republicans.

Indeed, California has only shifted leftward while Texas has moved to the right.  While Democrats gained four districts in 2012 the GOP gained an equal number in Texas (redistricting played a big part here).  But, California introduces a new variable into the equation and it is the one scaring the shit out of the party.

In response to the state’s 2000 redistricting scheme where dozens of incumbents protected themselves (only a single seat shifted in the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008), voters ratified a Constitutional Amendment in 2010 creating a jungle primary system.  Under this system (also currently utilized in Alaska, WA State and Louisiana in regularly scheduled elections), all candidates for an election run on the same ballot (regardless of political party) and the top-two vote getters advance to the November (or special election general) ballot.

The consequences have been less than stellar for the dominant Democratic Party.  Now, the party worries it could allow California to be the unexpected place where a Democratic wave crests.

In 2016, Clinton won the state by a whopping 30 percent and 3.3 million votes.  She also carried 46 of the state’s 53 Congressional districts including 7 of the state’s 14 GOP held districts.  Nowhere has this had a bigger impact than in formerly ruby-red Orange County.  The locale where Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson got their political start is now purple trending blue.  Clinton was the first Democrat to carry the area since FDR in 1936.

Republicans hold four of the county’s six congressional seats.  Ed Royce, the quintessential Southern California Republican, is retiring after 26 years on the job. To his southeast, Mimi Walters is facing the fight of her political career. To her west lies Dana Rohrabacher. And, down the coast, voters are saying good-bye to Darrell Issa, who’s ditching Congress after barely squeaking by to re-election in 2016.

The region, like much of the country and California is changing.  Almost half of residents have a college degree or greater, a third of the region’s denizens are Latino and almost a quarter Asian-American.  Whites make up less than half the population compared to 90 percent in 1980.  All this has Democrats smelling blood.

But the variable Democrats cannot control is the deleterious impacts of the jungle primary on a massive field of candidates.  While Democratic turnout and candidate recruitment has been a boon to the party almost everywhere in California it has forced the party to worry endangered Republican incumbents (many in Orange County) could squeak by November without having to face a Democratic challenger.

After the filing deadline closed last Wednesday, state party efforts to woo several candidates to drop out of contested primaries failed.  The glut of Democrats running for Rohrabacher’s, Issa’s and Royce’s seats all threatened to derail the party’s chances this fall.  Only in Walter’s district is a Democrat guaranteed to advance to the November ballot.

These factors all but ensure the DCCC will have to get involved to preserve their party’s chances in November.  If a wave develops, depending on its size and what happens in the Midwest (and Texas), these California seats could make or break a Democratic majority making California an unexpected GOP bulwark.

 

 

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Democrats Still Looking For First Special Election Congressional Win

March may be do or die time for Congressional Democrats.  Democrats ended the year on a high note with their surprise victory in Alabama but that was against possibly the worst Republican you could screenplay for electoral theater.  And Democratic victories in Virginia, New Jersey and legislative special elections across the country occurred in either blue/ing states or at a time when the Trump White House was largely in disarray.  Now, reports indicate that is not going to the case for 2018.

March’s contest will occur in a ruby red district in Pennsylvania once represented by Representative Tim Murphy.  Murphy resigned after reports surfaced stating he urged a woman with whom he had an affair to get an abortion.

The contest features two military veterans, 33 year old Democrat Conor Lamb and State Rep. Rick Saccone.  Due to state rules both candidates were not chosen by their parties voters but rather party committees meaning they are both still introducing themselves to the districts voters.

The race for Democrats presents an opportunity to actually compete or steal a seat in the Midwest and Rust Belt that swung heavily for Trump last year.  If Democrats can do so here then the sky may be the limit for the party next year.

In actuality, it is critical Democrats do well here if they have any hopes of retaking the House.  While 23 Republicans sit in districts Clinton won and the generic ballot decisively favors the party, history tells us it is extremely difficult to dislodge incumbents even in swing districts.  More so, 11 Democrats sit in Trump districts and more than half our in the Rust Belt.  If Democrats cannot make inroads here, how can their incumbents hold onto their heavily pro-Trump districts?

Focusing back on the Pennsylvania race, the district is a mix of working class rural areas and affluent suburbs populated mostly by white voters.  Historically, the district was a haven for conservative Democrats who were pro-life and pro 2nd Amendment.  This shows by the district having more registered Democrats than Republicans.  But, since that time, both the affluent suburbs and rural areas have moved red as the national Democratic party has tainted the local Democratic brand there.

Republicans are bracing for a tough race in the district while national Democrats seem to not understand how important the contest is for their Congressional chances.  The Cook Political Report has the race as “Leans Republican” while Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball has Republicans favored.

But who wins may not be as important as how Lamb and Saccone do.  Lamb is running as a centrist Democrat (ask Jon Ossoff how that worked out) while Saccone is running as a Trump type candidate.  Saccone, on a radio show, famously said, “I was Trump before there was Trump.”

This sets up an interesting dynamic in the district.  The district’s affluent suburbs take up most of the Southern portions of Allegheny County.  The rest of the district is made up of the largely rural Washington and Beaver counties.  Trump won the district by 20 points and took even the suburban portions of the district but the suburbs are exactly where is unpopular nationally.  Lamb’s centrist strategy seems tailored to appeal to these voters but in turn lessen worry among rural voters.

Lamb is sure to outrun Clinton in the district but the data will tell the tale of where and by how much.  By themselves, suburban voters cannot give the race to Lamb and Saccone is specifically appealing to rural, pro-Trump voters with his pitch.  It might cost him suburban voters to so closely tie himself to Trump but he seems to have some leeway with the district’s partisan lean.

Of course, there is also the caveat March is almost three months away.  Current economic projections look rosy, especially among blue-collar economic sectors and tax reform will have started to be felt in voters paychecks by February.  And Trump can cause a storm with his tweets, a international crisis could occur or a dozen other unknown variables could swing the race.

The candidates also matter and how well they match up with the district.  Lamb, running as a centrist, has chosen to emphasize local issues such as fighting the opioid epidemic and his criminal justice record.

Avoiding the hot button issues of guns and abortion is crucial for Lamb.  Lamb has chosen to simply say “choice is the law of the land” and his website says he supports gun rights.  It is not hard to see Saccone tying him to pro-choice, pro-gun control national Democrats.

“This district as a whole is a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment type of place and the Republican nominee is kind of standard issue conservative Republican on those issues,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican political consultant based in Pennsylvania. “The district is not going to elect someone who can’t tell you where they stand on abortion and isn’t a strong Second Amendment supporter.”

Saccone is certainly pro-life and pro-2nd Amendment.  He is trying to make his record as a legislator an asset by arguing he knows how to get things done, knows how to represent the district and Lamb is unprepared for the job.  Unsurprisingly, Saccone identities as a low-tax Republican and stands with the GOP’s tax reform success and stronger military priorities.  In an effort to reach out to affluent suburban swing voters he says he will work to fight for all his constituents in a bipartisan fashion.

The biggest worry for Republicans here is not where the suburbs go (though they should keep an eye on it) but rather turnout.  Democratic victories nationally have been fueled not by convincing Trump voters in massive numbers to swing their way but rather not to come out and vote.  In Democratic victories in Oklahoma and New Hampshire legislative contests, GOP turnout has dropped more than 50 percent from 2016.  In Alabama the GOP drop in turnout was a whopping 51 percent compared to 7 percent for Democrats.

The media is largely characterizing the race as bellwether for 2018 and they are right.  But for the wrong reasons.  The district is more Republican than many swing districts up for grabs next year but the mix of suburban and rural areas with a large number of white voters is similar to many Midwest swing districts.

By the media hyping the contest as a bellwether Democratic chances might sink further.  Democrats running in special elections have performed best when their contests fly under the radar.  For example, in June, Jon Ossoff raised $30 million for a competitive GA special election Trump won by one point.  Ossoff lost by four points.  Archie Parnell, running in a South Carolina district Trump won by over twenty points, raised barely anything and lost by three points.  Parnell’s race received little attention while all eyes were on Georgia and yet he lost by the narrowest margin of any Democratic Congressional candidate this year.

Parnell’s narrow loss was driven by a sharp drop in turnout among Republicans and it was a warning sign for the GOP.  The same dynamic could be at play in Pennsylvania unless the GOP finds a way to motivate its base (tying Lamb to Pelosi would be a start).  Democrats should not expect to win this contest but they should expect to make inroads.  It is where these inroads are and how GOP turnout is that will indicate for both parties where 2018 is headed.

 

On an unrelated note: Happy New Year!

 

Where The Action Is Tuesday

A smattering of elections on Tuesday will tell the nation and politicos where the nation stands one year after the election of Donald Trump.  From the East Coast (Virignia) to the West Coast (WA State) a series of elections are taking place that will help set the stage for next year’s midterms.  So, without further ado let’s take a look at them shall we?

Virginia Governor: Virginia has a unique election schedule where the gubernatorial elections always fall a year after the Presidential election, all House seats are up every two years and all Senate seats are up every four years in the year before the Presidential election.  Further, Virginia’s Governors can only serve a single term ensuring every gubernatorial election does not feature an incumbent.

Since 2004 , Virginia has trended blue, the only blip being in 2009.  Outgoing Governor Terry McAullife is popular and has anointed Lt. Governor Ralph Northam to be his successor.  Ironically, Republicans in the era of Trump nominated the least likely Trump-like candidate in former lobbyist and RNC Chair Ed Gillespie.

In a state Hillary Clinton won by five points, Trump garnered less than 45 percent of the vote and has horrid approval ratings it should be a cakewalk for Democrats.  Instead, Gillespie has kept it close by sending cultural appeals to Republicans in the West of the state while talking up traditional conservative beliefs in NoVA and the Richmond suburbs.  Northam should have this race in the bag but his lack of flash and appeal have helped keep it close.  Likely, if Northam goes down, so do the Democrats for Lt. Governor and Attorney General.  If Gillespie goes down, as is likely, so go down the other statewide Republican candidates.

Gubernatorial and Legislative

Virginia State House: The Virginia State House is up every two years and has been a bastion of conservatism in the state even as it has trended left.  In 2009, the GOP gained seven seats and after redistricting, in 2011, gained nine seats due to a favorable GOP controlled drawing of the legislative lines.  Since then, the GOP has had a stranglehold on the chamber.  In the less favorable 2013 and 2015 legislative elections the GOP only lost a single seat in each cycle.

This election, the GOP is defending their 66-34 majority and odds are good Democrats will gain a minimum of three seats in the NoVA suburbs.  That said, it is hard to see Democrats gaining the 17 seats, or even coming close, to gaining the majority.  The party holds out hope though considering they are challenging so many GOP held seats and Clinton actually carried exactly 17 GOP held House seats.

Democrats are hoping for a big night at the top of the ticket to help carry them down-ballot.  But if Gillespie is close it means he is over-performing in either NoVA or the Richmond and Tide water areas (all the regions Democrats see the biggest opportunity in for legislative gains).  For a more specific rundown of individual legislative races check here.

Georgia:  Yes, yes, I know.  The big event in Georgia is officially non-partisan, the Atlanta mayoral race, but another main event is.  The election for the 6th Senate District.  Held by Republicans, the seat became swung hard to Clinton last year 55-40.  If Democrats gain the seat they will officially break the GOP’s two-thirds supermajority in the legislature and can block the party from voting to put Constitutional Amendments on the ballot.  Five Republicans and three Democrats are running and if nobody gets 50 percent of the vote a run-of will be held in December.  Due to the number of candidates running, it is possible two Democrats or Republicans could face off in December but smart money is on a traditional, partisan two-way race emerging in December.

WA State: Despite being a blue state, WA State has been under divided government since 2013.  In 2012, two Democrats crossed the aisle and joined a coalition of Republicans in the State Senate.  One of those Democrats has resigned and a Republican was defeated in November, meaning the GOP’s majority is a single seat.

Earlier this year, Senate District 4 became open when State Senator Andy Hill died of lung cancer after being narrowly reelected last year.  The seat backed Clinton 65-28 and should be an easy takeover for Democrats but the GOP is stronger here down-ballot (like in the rest of the state).  In August, Democrat Manka Dhingra led Jinyoung Englund 51.5-41.5 in the August top-two primary for this seat and it’s likely she wins Tuesday.

But, the race has ultimately come down to both Dhingra and Englund distancing themselves from their parties with Dhingra saying she would be an “independent voice”  in Olympia while Englund has said she did not vote for Trump.

Dhingra’s impending victory has Democrats dreaming of creating a united West Coast wall against Trump and enacting a massive, visionary progressive agenda.  That would be great except Democrats majorities in both chambers will rest on a mere three seats and pushing an income tax or other taxes will likely be unpopular in conservative Democratic seats (they do exist).  In reality, whatever happens here won’t change much.

New Jersey Governor and Legislature: This year, there is not much excitement in the Garden State.  Governor Chris Christie, who was reelected in a landslide in 2013, is so unpopular he probably could not be elected dog catcher.  This is dragging down Republican Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno.  Democrats nominated some rich dude Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany.  He has crushed Kim in every poll and the only question is how much he wins by.

Democrats already have strong majorities in both chambers of the legislature and most Republicans and Democrats are likely to win reelection despite what happens at the top of the ticket.  One note of excitement might be in Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney’s (D) 3rd District in South Jersey.  Sweeney has angered the NJEA for backing pension reform in 2011 and has spent heavily to elect Republican Fran Grenier.  Grenier has run on a traditional, conservative platform and largely avoided saying much about pension reform. Sweeney’s mostly rural district did back Trump and Democrats have diverted millions to defend him so might we see a surprise Tuesday night?

UtahDemocrats wish they had a shot in the very red 3rd CD of former Congressman Jason Chaffetz.  Republican candidate and former Provo Mayor John Curtis, is well ahead of Democrat Katie Allen and it would be somewhat of a surprise of Curtis wins by less than 20 points.

Michigan: Democrats are hoping to flip HD 109, a seat that backed Obama in 2012 but backed Trump last year.  The seat, located in the reddening Upper Peninsula, is a test case for Democrats in the state legislature who have been locked out of power since 2011.

Mayoral Contests: (skipping Atlanta, Seattle and Minneapolis contests because the only suspense is how progressive the ultimate winning candidates are).

Charlotte: The biggest mayoral contest of the night in North Carolina is Charlotte.  Despite the city’s blue tint, Republicans held the office until 2009.  No Republican has won since.  Despite this, Democrats have not had an easy time running the city.

Incumbent Mayor Jennifer Roberts lost earlier in the year and Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles is running against Republican Councilman Kenny Smith.  Lyles may still be weighed down by Roberts while Smith is far, far more conservative than Republican Ed Peacock, who lost two narrow races in 2013 and 2015.  A Survey USA poll found the race deadlocked statistically speaking at 41-40 in October.  There is another contest in Raleigh but the only question is what Democrat leads the urban enclave.

St. Petersburg: A number of mayoral races are occurring in Florida but the most interesting by far is in St. Petersburg.  Democratic Mayor Rick Kriseman is being challenged by former GOP Mayor Rick Baker.

Baker left office in 2010 to sky-high approval ratings due to his strong approval among black voters.  In August, the two finished the primary neck and neck though Kriseman over-performed relative to what pre-election polls showed.  Kriseman has tried to make the race a partisan affair by tying Baker to Trump.  Baker has attacked Kriseman for inept management of the state’s ailing sewage system.  If the race hinges on Trump then Kriseman wins but if local management matters the most to voters the race will be a nailbiter.

Manchester: In 2015, GOP Mayor Ted Gatsas won reelection with an unimpressive 85 votes.  His opponent, Joyce Craig, is back for a rematch and she won the nonpartisan primary in September 53-46.  In her last go-round, Craig lost the nonpartisan primary.  Ultimately, Democrats claiming this office will be a talking point but little else.  However, it could set Craig up to be a force in state politics into the future.

Statewide Initatives:

Maine: GOP Governor Paul Lepage has vetoed several legislative efforts to expand Medicaid in the state.  Progressives responded by putting expansion on the ballot in the form of Question 2.  Legislators have split on the question while unsurprisingly, LePage has opposed it.

There have been nil reliable polls on opinion about the question but it will probably be decided along partisan lines.  Likely correlating with partisan opinion on the question Maine Senator Susan Collins decided to stay in the US Senate and not run for governor because few state Republicans had a favorable opinion of her after she helped defeat GOP efforts to repeal the ACA.

New York State (including county races): New York City has a mayoral race but Bill de Blasio could probably shoot somebody and be reelected.  In other words, there is no excitement in the race.

In Nassau County, Democrats are trying to retake the county executive post lost in 2009.  Republican Ed Mangano was indicted last fall on corruption charges and the county GOP flocked to former State Senator Jack Martins.  Democrats support Nassau County based legislator Laura Curran.

Curran has made the contest a referendum on corruption and former GOP Senate Leader Dean Skellos (whose conviction was overturned by an appeals court).  Martins has responded by trying to make the race about law and order and portraying Curran as soft as crime.  The most recent poll gave Martins a tiny edge and the county has a history of supporting down-ballot Republicans but anything can happen.

In Westchester County, which backed Clinton by 33 points last November, GOP incumbent Rob Astorino is running an uphill race against State Senator George Latimer (D).  Astorino was his party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2014 and has heavily outspent Latimer.  If not for the outside spending of GOP supporter Rob Mercer he probably would have no shot.  Latimer has tried to tie Astorino to Trump while Astorino has made the race about local issues.  A local poll found the race a dead heat.

Now, onto the weirdest feature of NY’s elections.  Under state law, a question appears on the ballot every twenty years asking voters whether they want to hold a constitutional convention.  At this convention changes could be made to the state constitution.  If the measure passes, delegates would be elected in 2018, followed by the convention in 2019.

While few New Yorkers love their state government, even fewer seem willing to take the risk of a convention.  Liberal labor, reproductive rights and environmental groups and conservative groups oppose the “con-con,” arguing special interests could hijack the delegate elections.  Liberals fear conservative delegates being elected utilizing state senate lines while conservatives fear liberals taking control of the convention and ramming their beliefs down state voters throats.  If a recent Siena survey is accurate, voters will once again reject the “con-con.”

Thanks for reading!

 

 

Roy Moore’s Victory Was An Alabama Thing: Nothing More

Many in the political/pundit class are hailing Roy Moore’s victory in Alabama’s Senate GOP Primary run-off as a victory for the anti-establishment and insurgent forces in the party.  It only reinforced such a view when earlier this week Bob Corker resigned.  But, the reality, is far from what most pundits recognize.  The truth is the election was an “Alabama thing” and little else.

I have a name for you, Robert Bentley.  That is who this election was really about.  The former Governor who used taxpayer money to hide an extramarital affair cast a wide shadow over the primary.  Is it any wonder the guy he appointed to the Senate then lost in a primary?

Let’s back up for a second here.  If you did not know who Robert Bentley was he was the former second term Governor of Alabama.  Bentley had a stellar record and was widely liked in party circles until it broke he had used taxpayer money to hide an extramarital affair.

The Attorney General investigating him at the time, none other than Luther Strange, was soon appointed to US AG Jeff Session’s open Senate seat.  The entire process stunk and it only grew worse when soon after being appointed, Strange said he had never been investigating Bentley.  Um, except the House of Representatives held off impeaching Bentley because you asked them to for your investigation.

Ultimately, Bentley stepped down and was replaced by his Lt. Governor Kay Ivey.  A special election needed to be held to finish out all of Session’s Senate term and Strange and his allies wanted it to coincide with the 2018 midterms.  Instead, owing nothing to the good ole boys of yesteryear, Ivey called the special for December, which meant primaries over the summer.

Unsurprisingly, Strange had the backing of McConnell and leadership.  McConnell has made clear he backs incumbents over challengers.  Though he had hinted he would jump into the race it was still a bit of a surprise when Moore got in.  The former state Supreme Court Justice had a colorful history of being elected on the court until 2002, when he was removed.  In 2012, he ran and won back a spot on the court and openly defied the US Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage.  The last Republican with any standing to enter was Mo Brooks.

Brooks finished third in the initial primary, unsurprisingly as Moore and Strange finished first and second.  McConnell’s PAC spent millions attacking Moore but at the end of the day as much as some conservatives detested Moore they could not get over Strange’s appointment to the Senate.  It stank of a political pro quo.  As a result, Moore won the runoff last week with 55 percent of the vote.

The irony here is that if Strange had simply run in the primary and not been appointed to the seat by Bentley he probably would have won the election.  Unlike Moore, Strange is well-liked and does not have the controversial streak of Moore.  But elections are about more than who you like best (just ask Al Gore).

It’s a stretch to say Moore’s victory puts the seat in play but a new poll did put him ahead by only five points.  Still, for this seat to really be competitive Moore would probably have to lose a significant contingent of his base and it is hard to see that happening now if it hasn’t already.

Do Democrats Have A Chance In Tennessee?

Democrats are currently celebrating they get to face Roy Moore in December in Alabama but they also are debating how much of a shot they have to flip Bob Corker’s ruby red Senate seat.  On Tuesday, Corker announced he would not seek reelection.  Though he had been toying with the idea for months, few thought he would.

It is important to consider looking at recent elections to assess Democratic chances in the state.  The last Democrat to win a partisan statewide election was Governor Phil Bredesen,  He was term-limited out in 2010.  The same year, Bob Corker won a narrow reelection with almost 51 percent against Harold Ford who received 47 percent.  The best a Democratic Senate candidate has done since then is 32 percent.

Of course, this is now an open seat so Democrats can probably do better.  They also have an appealing candidate reminiscent of Ford in James Mackler, a veteran who has raised almost $500K.  His biography is appealing to voters of many different ideologies.

Corker had attracted the ire of the Steve Bannon and Breitbart.  Bannon had vowed to spend heavily to defeat Corker.  But, Corker had hinted for some time he was considering leaving and his decision this early opens up the floodgates for more established candidates to decide.

The top candidate currently considering is Marsha Blackburn.  Blackburn currently represents the Central Tennessee based 7th District in Congress and has never faced a serious reelection.  She’s conservative, a woman, and would be hard to beat in a GOP primary or general election.

The outsider candidate supposedly credited with driving Corker out was the former state head of the Americans for Prosperity is Andy Ogles.  While he has outsider backing to date he has received little outside support and has limited electoral backing.

As indicated above, Democrats have had a tough time in Tennessee of late.  The last Democrat to carry it at the federal level was Bill Clinton in 1996.  Like many Southern states, Democrats maintained a majority in the state legislature until the late 2000’s.  But, like many other states, the shift to the red team down-ballot came quickly.

In 1996, Republicans narrowly took control of the state senate even as Bill Clinton was carrying the state.  Democrats would retake the chamber in 1997 and hold it narrowly until 2005 and have held it since (a nominal Independent split the chamber in 2006 and 2008).

The State House was the foundation of Democratic dominance in the state.  Until 2008, the party had a healthy majority in the chamber.  But as successful as 2008 was for Democrats in Tennessee the GOP took the State House for the first time since 1969.  However, in a strange turn of events, Kent Williams colluded with Democrats to be elected Speaker over another opponent and gave Democrats plum committee assignments.  In turn, he was stripped of his party affiliation and nominally became an Independent.  In 2010 and 2012, the GOP expanded their majorities to 30 plus seats.

As for the Congressional delegation, after 2010 redistricting the state has settled into a 7R-2D House delegation.  Redistricting is not to blame for the shift though as long-time moderate Democrats retired and their districts turned redder in the age of Obama.

All this paints a grim picture for Democrats next year.  Especially when one considers the party has better targets in Nevada, Arizona and arguably Texas.  Plus, Democrats will be spending quite a bit of money playing defense.  All this seems to indicate Democrats wound need everything to break their way for success even with Corker retiring.

Will Virginia Be A Bellwether For Next Year

All the excitement is on the Democratic side.  Right?  At least that is the general consensus going into this off-year’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey.  Republicans are certain to lose New Jersey (how much lower can Chris Christie’s approval go) and it seemed certain Virginia would stay blue.  President Trump had a sub-forty approval rating nationally and in Virginia (until recently).  Worse, the GOP candidate, Ed Gillespie, who should have won his primary barely squeaked by with a narrow victory.

But, the polls out of Virginia do not make the race a foregone conclusion.  The latest surveys have shown a deadlocked or near deadlocked contest.  The last two surveys on the contest, from Suffolk and Mason-Dixon have found the race tied or a one point affair.  Of course, the devil is usually in the details.  Mason-Dixon found more black voters and Democrats undecided than Republicans meaning if they turn out Gillespie is in trouble.  But the recent surveys in Virginia and their data-points also indicate despite all the anger Democrats have turned towards Trump they might still be struggling to motivate their base.

This matters not just for Virginia but also elections next year.  White, college educated liberals, have historically always turned out for the party.  But, last year, and more recently in GA-6, the party learned the hard way they cannot count on Obamaesque levels of turnout among minorities.  Hispanics turned out in force in California but they failed to come close to their total electoral power in Colorado or Florida.

Amid all the hand-wringing among Democrats is a continual worry they simply will be unable to turn out their base in sufficient numbers to swing key Congressional and Senate contests.  Hope for increased minority turnout in GA-6 fizzled and many of the legislative districts Democrats have flipped in special elections have been low-turnout sleepy affairs or in GOP controlled Oklahoma (where voters are angry about the GOP taking an axe to the education budget).

If Democrats cannot turn out minorities next year, which have become an increasingly crucial part of the party’s upstairs/downstairs coalition they’ll have problems.  Winning districts in CA that voted for Clinton but are held by Republicans would be brutal and in FL, CO and VA, the party’s hopes of winning additional seats becomes a long-shot.

This is to say nothing of the even more crucial statewide and legislative contests across the nation next year.  If Democrats hope to have any chance to capitalize on minority growth in the next decade they will need to win positions of power in the states to actually realize these gains.

This poses a problem for Democrats.  In Ohio, the party is incredibly reliant on the state’s black population.  It failed in November.  In Florida and Colorado, while Hispanic turnout increased, the voting block is not lockstep in support of the party and in GA-6 there is even the question whether any more minorities can be convinced to vote.  Have Democrats reached the point where they have maximized their turnout among minorities in the short-term?

Of course this is all speculative.  But if Virginia falls flat, even if Democrats hold all statewide offices and make gains in the State House, it indicates Democrats have serious problems for a multitude of reasons.

First, it would seem to indicate smart Republicans can outrun and distance themselves from Trump.  They might be able to win over voters who disapprove of Trump (aka circa 2016).  Secondly, if Virginia, a state demographically made for the party is tepid on the Democratic nominee it signals the base really is more bark than bite.  Virginia has a 20% black population, a burgeoning Asian and Hispanic voting bloc and is one of the most affluent and educated states in the country.  If Democrats can barely win here can they expect to compete in districts tailor-made for them against a sitting GOP incumbent?

Come November we’ll see.

 

To Gerrymander Or Not To Gerrymander?

Gerrymandering is a decennial and highly partisan sport for American politicians and consultants.  And nowhere has it been more so than in three states, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Texas.  Indeed, so partisan has it become that Democrats have convinced an appellate court to side with their interests and force the state of Wisconsin to appeal to the Supreme Court (oral arguments are scheduled for next month).

Gerrymandering can take many forms, some insidious, some partisan, and some plain racial.  In Wisconsin, new territory is being charted in the form of a map that is too partisan.  No Supreme Court ruling has found a map can be too partisan.  The drawing of Congressional and legislative lines is by its very nature a partisan action.

In Wisconsin specifically, GOP officials in 2011 drew a map that locked in their assembly majorities from 2010.  Under unified GOP control the state drew lines that locked Democrats into political irrelevancy (kind of like Illinois, but Democrats did it there so it is fine).

For example, in 2008, the state legislative lines had a slight GOP lean.  That election, Democrats won 57 percent of the assembly vote and garnered 52 seats to the GOP’s 46 seats with 43 percent of the vote (a conservative Independent caucused with Republicans).  In 2012, the changed maps showed their effects.  Democrats won 53 percent of the assembly vote but won a mere 39 seats to the GOP’s 60.  In 2016, Republicans won 53 percent of the assembly vote and an eye-popping 64 seats.

Such results have prompted liberal scholars to come up with mathematical tests to assess whether a map passes the partisan smell test.  In prior court rulings, all but one conservative jurist, Anthony Kennedy, have closed the door on ever saying a map is too partisan.  Liberals would say maps should be non-partisan and ram it down the states throats if they could get away with it.

Using mathematical tests to assess partisanship is fine and all but determining at which point it crosses the line is the difficult part.  More so, can the mathematical model account for partisan or cultural changes over time?

For example, just look at the state of West Virginia (a mostly white state like Wisconsin).  The current map was passed in 2011 by a Democratic Governor and a Democratic legislature.  Last year, every single legislative district voted for Trump.  Today, those Democratic maps have produced a GOP majority in the legislature, an all GOP US House delegation and a GOP Governor.  The mathematical tests used to assess partisanship and violation of one’s 1st Amendment rights would say West Virginia violates this idea.  But one could easily argue, in turn, West Virginians made the choice to vote Republican irregardless of partisanship.  That’s the tricky nature of determining what is and is not too partisan.

Voters move, opinions change over time and it is unlikely a mathematical model of any kind can account for this.  Plus, it would be hard to rationalize being able to meet other state and legal redistricting requirements (compactness, keeping communities of interest together, etc.) on top of this one without seeing some tortured legislative districts.

Certainly, Wisconsin’s situation is unique but one thing it is not is racially based.  The state is more than 90 percent white meaning the map is based exclusively on partisanship.  The same cannot be said for maps in the South.  Specifically Texas and North Carolina (though Alabama deserves a mention here to).  In both states, legislative and Congressional maps have been shot down by the courts over their racial intent.

Unlike partisanship, racial mapmaking has been a big no, no in this country for decades as first defined by the Voting Rights Act.  As a result, many states had to get “preclearance” from the Department of Justice if any electoral changes were made in the state (think changing precinct lines.  Yes, I kid you not).  The Supreme Court saw fit to strike down this aspect of the VRA in 2013 but left the rest of the law intact.Not surprisingly though, the history of race dominated their processes.

In Texas, the state has seen a booming population due to the influx of Hispanics and Asians.  Easily 50 percent of the population growth in the state from 2000-2010 was Hispanic.  But the state GOP, having controlled all statewide offices since 1994 and the legislature since the new millennium worked hard to draw lines that locked in their majorities.  As a result, the Congressional lines of the state resulted in a 24-12 GOP Congressional delegation and lopsided legislative majorities.

Democrats and civil rights groups cried foul even before 2012 and a San Antonio District Court in 2011 found the lines were a racial gerrymander.  The District Court drew temporary lines for 2012 but the Supreme Court struck them down for imposing a burden on the state.  In 2013, Texas made much of the 2011 District Court map permanent.

But a flurry of new rulings have again brought racial gerrymandering to the forefront.  Earlier in the year, a different District Court found the 2011 maps were unconstitutional and soon after the same court found the current 2013 lines were as well.  Specifically, the District Court found two Congressional districts (could have been much worse for the GOP) were racial gerrymanders for splitting up Hispanic communities.  In turn, the GOP appealed to the US Supreme Court and in a one-page order, Justice Alito ordered a stay on the District Court’s ruling.

Similar to Texas, North Carolina’s legislative and Congressional maps have been the subject of racial line drawing.  Interestingly, due to a quirk in state law that allows the legislature to approve new lines without the Governor’s approval the new legislative GOP majorities in 2011 rammed through a partisan map in the fullest.  For decades, Democrats in North Carolina who controlled the legislature did the same thing and now the GOP was returning the favor.

The 2012 results highlighted the significant change.  That year, Democrats won the Congressional and legislative vote 51-49 in the state.  But, the 6-5 Democratic Congressional majority turned into a 10-3 GOP majority and the party gained seats in the legislature (Romney did also win the state).

Due to this the GOP gained a super-majority in the state legislature and with Governor McCrory helming the state the GOP ushered in a plethora of conservative legislation.  However, a series of lawsuits making their way through the courts came to a head this year when it was ruled the state had racially gerrymandered 28 state legislative districts.  Failing an appeal to the US Supreme Court and getting no help from the state’s new Democratic Governor, the legislature redrew the lines and explicitly argued the new lines were meant to emphasize partisanship and not race (a strange admission but one so far the highest court in the land has accepted).

Complicating matters further in many Southern states is the fact race and partisanship go hand in hand.  When 95 percent of blacks support Democrats it is easy to pack them into one district or a handful of districts arguing they can elect the “candidate of their choice,” while maximizing your partisan gain.  The Supreme Court in recent years has handed defeats to Virginia and Alabama based on overturning these arguments as opponents of the maps have cited how it limits the ability of black voters to maximize their voting power.  Such is the contradiction of the Voting Rights Act.

In turn, the Voting Rights Act is showing its age.  No longer is the country divided along two major colors (black and white).  As the country becomes more diverse, courts will continue to disagree with each other and the Supreme Court will find it hard to keep their decisions rational and logical.

Gerrymandering is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.  For all the cries of non-partisan redistricting commissions, many state legislatures are opposed to handing over such power.  Additionally, in states like Illinois and Maryland, the courts often short-circuit such efforts (where efforts are actually led by Republicans).

In sum, two major themes run through American political redistricting.  The first is redistricting is partisan in nature but at what point does partisanship infringe on the right to free speech and association?  Secondly, how does one disentangle race and polarization in an era in the South where 90 percent of whites in some states vote Republican and 90 percent of blacks vote Democrat?

The next few years could go a long way in determining the answers to these questions.