The Week in Politics: Top Officials at Risk and Unresolved 2016 Election Maps

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | February 12, 2016
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, right, shaking hands with volunteers who are helping distribute water to Flint families. (AP/Carlos Osorio)

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Statewide Officials Find Themselves at Risk

Executive branch jobs are generally more stable than legislative positions. But some didn't seem too secure this week.

In Michigan, the drumbeat of complaints about Republican Gov. Rick Snyder just keep getting louder. On Monday, the Board of State Canvassers approved one of many recall petitions, which gives Snyder's critics a green light to collect signatures to put a recall measure on the November ballot. The approved petition has to do with education, but any recall campaign will focus squarely on how Snyder has handled the Flint water crisis.

In Indiana, Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who is up for re-election this fall, picked a new running mate this week after his quit. Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann is up for a job running a community college system, so Pence turned to Eric Holcomb, a former chair of the state GOP, to shore up his ties with party activists.

"By selecting Holcomb as his running mate, Pence sent a clear message about how endangered his political career is," wrote Matthew Tully, a columnist with the Indianapolis Star.

Pence is being challenged by Democrat John Gregg, a former House speaker.

In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee is having trouble staffing his cabinet.

Last week, the Republican-controlled state Senate refused to officially confirm Lynn Peterson for transportation secretary, even though she's been in the job for three years. They cited problems with two major freeway projects and said it was time for a change in leadership. 

What's more, the day after the Senate voted out Peterson, Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke resigned. Pacholke was appointed in October but hadn't been confirmed. The prison system veteran had drawn criticism because of a longstanding software glitch that released hundreds of prisoners early.

"I notify you now of my resignation," Pacholke wrote to GOP state Sen. Mike Padden, who chairs the Law and Justice Committee. "I hope it meets your need for blood."

Inslee, who is up for re-election this year, complained on Monday that Senate Republicans are "out of control," adding that they are "scurrilous, underhanded and dishonest."

In Pennsylvania, the state Senate voted on Wednesday against removing Kathleen Kane, the disbarred Democratic attorney general who faces criminal charges, from office. But her job worries aren't over because the House is still considering impeachment.

2016 Congressional Maps Up in the Air

At the midpoint of the decade-long redistricting cycle and in a presidential election year, congressional and legislative maps remain a subject for legal and political debate.

After a federal court in North Carolina this week upheld its recent ruling that found legislators relied too heavily on race in drawing two congressional districts, the state asked the U.S. Supreme Court to let it use current congressional boundaries for this year's elections.

North Carolina is one of several states -- along with Alabama, Texas and Virginia -- where districts have been challenged on the basis of racial gerrymandering. The states have argued that in order to comply with federal Voting Rights Act requirements to ensure minority representation, they had to create districts that were heavily populated by minorities. But plaintiffs have contended that they went overboard, illegally "packing" excessive numbers of minority voters into districts, which has the effect of diluting their representation in neighboring areas.

"What happened in this cycle is that Republicans, in my view, got some very bad legal advice," said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida. He acted as an expert witness for plaintiffs who successfully challenged Virginia's congressional map. "The states didn't do their due diligence and the statistical analyses necessary to show that their redistricting plans were narrowly tailored to address race," he said.

North Carolina has a primary scheduled for March 15, and some people are already casting absentee ballots. Lawyers for the state argue it's too late to redraw districts. But if they can't get an emergency stay from the Supreme Court, state House Speaker Tim Moore warned colleagues they might have to head back to the drawing board next week.

Aside from questions about race, districts drawn by legislatures continue to draw criticism for contributing to partisan polarization.

"The fact is, today technology allows parties in power to precision-draw constituencies so that the opposition's supporters are packed into as few districts as possible," said President Obama on Wednesday during his address to the Illinois General Assembly. "That's why our districts are shaped like earmuffs or spaghetti."

The push to make redistricting less partisan, however, is gaining traction in Illinois and elsewhere.

A group called Independent Maps, for example, is collecting signatures for a ballot measure that would turn redistricting in Illinois over to an independent commission. A similar measure will be on South Dakota's ballot in November. A half-dozen states -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington -- have independent commissions in place.

Governors and legislators in some states, including Maryland and Pennsylvania, have also called for independent redistricting commissions. These types of proposals usually come from the party that doesn't control the legislature, and thus has little say when it comes to redistricting.

"Nobody's going to give up, willingly, their majority," said Pennsylvania state Sen. John Wozniak, a Democrat, when he introduced his redistricting bill last month.

For that reason, Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a member of the ruling Democratic Party, has proposed creating an interstate compact under which Maryland and a GOP-dominated state (most likely neighboring Virginia) would set up a joint redistricting commission that would draw the lines in both states.

Odds and Ends

Governors Are Popular in Theory: Nearly three out of four Americans agree: The best experience for the presidency is having served as governor. That's according to the results of a Gallup poll released on Monday, but you wouldn't know it from watching the current campaign.

With Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey suspending his bid for the GOP nomination on Wednesday, only three of the 10 former or current governors who made a run for the presidency this cycle are still in the chase -- John Kasich of Ohio, Jeb Bush of Florida and Jim Gilmore of Virginia.

None of the three is expected to end up becoming the GOP nominee or maybe even get a job in the next administration. Governors have made up only 11 percent of presidential cabinet picks since 1953, according to a new tally from the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University.

Big Spending in Arkansas: A conservative group called Judicial Crisis Network has poured $336,245 into television ad spending in its effort to defeat Courtney Goodson in the March 1 election for chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. That's more than double the amount spent by outside groups in judicial races in the state in 2014, according to an analysis by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.

GOP Wins Democratic Stronghold: Minnesota Democrats are hoping to win back control of the state House this year, but their task got tougher on Tuesday. Republican Chad Anderson picked up a seat in Bloomington in a special election. "It was a surprising result in a suburban district that's long been held by Democrats," Briana Bierschbach wrote in MinnPost.

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