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.

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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.

Ohio and Oregon: Going Opposite Directions

Last Tuesday, Oregon Democratic Governor Kate Brown, the nation’s only LBGT Governor, signed into law the most progressive abortion law into the nation.  The law, passed on a party-line vote by the Oregon legislature (which means not even pro-choice Republicans could support it, they do exist in Oregon) in July makes abortion for any reason legal, puts taxpayers on the hook to subsidize the procedure and even allows illegal immigrants to acquire free abortions at taxpayer expense.

The $10.2 million bill takes effect immediately, allocating almost $500,000 for abortions for the over 22,000 women eligible under the plan.  This includes female immigrants ineligible for the state exchange.

Unsurprisingly, lawsuits are sure to follow.  Opponents argue the law violates the obscure Weldon Amendment, passed in 2004, that prohibits Health and Human Services from providing funding to states that discriminate against healthcare providers.

The initial version of HB 3391 provided few if any religious exemptions.  Providence Healthcare, as a result, threatened to exit the state exchange if changes were not made to the law.  Providence, churches and religious nonprofits are exempted from the law but doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners are not.  Even California and NY State that make abortion free do not have laws that personify “abortion on demand” and their exemptions are much more generous.

In Middle America, another state is taking a drastically different course.  Ohio, led by moderate Governor John Kasich and a solidly Republican state legislature has steadily enacted an anti-abortion agenda which culminated with a ban on abortions after twenty weeks.  Kasich vetoed a fetal heartbeat bill at the same time.

In response to a stunning study on Iceland showing down syndrome has been eliminated not through acceptance or in-vitro fertilization but rather through abortions of prospective parents of children with down syndrome an Ohio State Senator is promoting a bill to ban abortions based on down syndrome.

First introduced in 2015 the idea has been resurrected in the face of actions by states like Oregon and NY State.  The Ohio Senate Health, Human Services, and Medicaid Committee heard proponent testimony for the Down Syndrome Non-Discrimination Act (S.B. 164) on August 22nd, 2017 and the bill is likely to fly out of committee.

In the face of medical advances leading to eugenics Ohio Right to Life President Michael Gonidakis said, “The Down Syndrome Non-Discrimination Act is a crucial step in creating a society that is inclusive of people who are different, no matter how many chromosomes they have.  This legislation is an important part of protecting those most vulnerable from discrimination based on their genetic makeup. We are so thankful for the advocates, families, and medical professionals who came out to stand up for unborn babies with Down syndrome.”

Right to Life is not the only supporter of the bill.  Medical professionals Dr. Dennis Sullivan and Kelly Kuhns both testified in support of the bill.  Sullivan, a Bioethics expert at Cedarville University said such a law is necessary to protect society’s most vulnerable from the unintended consequences of technological advancement.

Most glaringly, while progressives argue limiting women’s access to abortion is discriminatory the same argument is used in favor of banning Down syndrome based abortions.  “Down syndrome isn’t fatal, but discriminatory abortions that target those who have it are. Ohio has the chance to lead the nation and create a society where people with Down syndrome are included, accepted, and loved.” Abortion has to be one of the most tragic forms of discrimination we can imagine,” said Gonidakis. “None of us are perfect, yet babies with disabilities continue to be targeted for elimination based on the notion that some babies are simply better than others. We are all created equal and should be protected as intrinsically valuable members of our one human family.”

As mentioned before, the legislation comes in response to studies showing an untold number of children are aborted who have Down syndrome.  Shockingly,  in Denmark, 98 percent of babies with a positive diagnosis are aborted and in Iceland the number is almost 100 percent . Last year, a French court banned a pro-life commercial featuring smiling children with Down syndrome on the basis that it could “disturb the conscience” of women who had aborted their unborn children.

In an era of intense polarization and social/ideological schisms such maneuvers by elected officials and advocates are inevitable.  But the ideological debate going on today is only surface level.  Below lurk the dangers of eugenics and the warnings many bioethics experts have been telling for years with rapid advancements in medical technology.

Welcome to America 2017!