Matt Damon opened Rounders with the classic admonition, “If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.” As we draw closer to the end of the decade, it’s advice Republicans may want to take to heart.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about Colorado Democrats’ progressive agenda in the aftermath of Proposition CC’s failure.
In particular, I noted the disparity between the actual percentage of votes Democrats received in state House elections and the disproportionally large percentage of state House seats they won due to gerrymandered districts.
To continue the Rounders metaphor, one of my readers thought he caught a “hanger” – a sleight of hand card cheat tell – and called me out on social media about Republicans benefiting from the same distortion across the nation.
And that analysis is absolutely right, I just didn’t have the column inches to get into it at the time and because that column related to Colorado Democrats.
In fact, across the country an Associated Press analysis demonstrated Republican gerrymandered districts “prevented deeper losses or helped them hold on to power” in congressional and state legislative races.
The historical context that created that advantage should provide ample warning for Republicans who have gambled big and gone “all-in” with a deeply unpopular president.
The two major political parties lose seats when they have a president in power. That’s a simple fact borne out time and again in our country. But the timing is critical.
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No party fared as poorly in state elections over the past 50 years as Democrats did under President Obama. During his tenure, Democrats lost 23 gubernatorial seats and control in 33 state Senate and 32 state Houses.
Much of that tumult came in 2010 as Republicans went on a Mike McDermott-esque rush to victories just before the decennial redistricting and reapportionment of congressional and legislative seats.
In many states that timing meant Republicans controlled how the lines for legislative seats were drawn. The structural advantage can be drawn directly to Republicans’ resilience in 2018 despite Democratic dominance in total votes.
And that is exactly where the Rounders parallel truly blooms.
It isn’t too difficult to imagine Republicans uttering a famous line from the apropos name Teddy KGB, “Fine. It’s a … joke anyway. After all, I am paying you with your own money.”
The hundreds of legislative seats and gubernatorial offices won by Democrats in 2018 and bolstered in 2019’s off-year elections were all paid for out of Republican gains in prior election cycles. Republicans still hold state government trifectas – control of both chambers of the state legislature and a the governorship – in 21 states compared to Democrats 15.
Generally speaking, Republicans maintain the ability to gerrymander 37% of congressional districts compared to 14% for Democrats.
But like poker, politics is a game where momentum matters.
Democratic wins in a big states like Virginia give them control of redistricting for a substantial number of seats. Furthermore, stripping Republican control from large prizes like Ohio and Pennsylvania will buffer them from the partisan handicaps they endured for the past decade.
The real test will come in 2020. While the presidential race will dominate the headlines, its down ballot effects will have the longest lasting consequences.
If Democrat turnout, typically bolstered during presidential election years and potentially goosed by anti-Trump fervor, spills over Republicans’ structural barricades, the cascading effect could be tremendous for Democratic efforts to draw the next set of lines in 2021.
Republicans have a lot at stake heading into the 2020 election and may already be on tilt. With a chunk of their stake already lost, the could find the rest at risk quickly.
If they aren’t careful, they’ll end up just like Teddy KGB, frustrated and angry uttering, “They beat us straight up. Pay them. Pay them their legislative seats.”
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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