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Local Gerrymanders and Republican Distrust

A bi-weekly tracking of the lead up to the 2022 election season.

Former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett with journalist Cherno Jobatey.
Former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett with journalist Cherno Jobatey on Oct. 16, 2021.
(Flickr/Cherno Jobatey)
Editor's note: Governing’s new politics newsletter brings results and coverage of important trends twice a month. This second edition examines the struggle between gerrymandering and efforts to expand voting rights. Plus a primer on Republican distrust in the country’s institutions even as they lead the Democrats by a third in filling out the slate of Congressional nominees.

Local gerrymanders: Tom Barrett served as Milwaukee’s mayor for nearly two decades before becoming ambassador to Luxembourg. One of his last acts was to veto the Common Council’s new map for itself, which he argued did not reflect Latino population growth. Almost as soon as he was confirmed for his new job, however, the Common Council revived and passed the map again.

It was one instance among many of racial gerrymandering at the local level. Stephen Holmes has been the only minority member of the Galveston County, Texas, commission for the past 22 years, but the minority share of his district was reduced by 28 percent under the redistricting plan adopted in November. The county’s population is 45 percent non-white, but under the new map its county commission is likely to have all white and Republican members.

In Georgia, the Legislature voted to block county commission maps created by the Gwinnett County Commission, which has recently elected all members of color. “It really dilutes the political power of Gwinnett voters of Black, Hispanic and Asian American communities, and it undermines their freedom to ultimately vote for their elected officials of choice,” said Democratic state Rep. Sam Park.

Civil rights groups are carefully tracking — and often suing to block — racial gerrymanders at the congressional and legislative levels. But none of them have the resources to follow every city council, county commission and school board redistricting effort. That used to be, in many states, a job for the Justice Department.

Under the Voting Rights Act, states and local jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination had to submit any changes in election law — including redistricting plans — to the Justice Department or federal judges for approval, which was known as preclearance. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County vs. Holder, however, found that the criteria used for putting places on the preclearance list was outdated. “The Voting Rights Act in 1965 was passed in part because of this case-by-case basis” of establishing new ways to discriminate, says Mitchell Brown, voting rights counsel for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a civil rights group in Durham, N.C. “They put in preclearance so civil rights organizations aren’t burdened. Now it’s back to case by case. It’s like playing Whack-A-Mole — you hit one and another one comes up.”

Congress has been unable, given its many failed attempts at passing voting rights legislation, to establish new criteria for preclearance. The Supreme Court may well make it harder to challenge any maps as racial gerrymanders, but it’s already more difficult to block local-level gerrymanders than it was in decades past. “The civil rights community just simply doesn’t have the resources to police what is happening at every level of government when it comes to redistricting,” says Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.
South Dakota Gov. Krist
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC held at the Hilton Anatole on July 11, 2021 in Dallas, Texas.
(Brandon Bell/Getty Images/TNS)
Republican Distrust: Polling has shown that many conservatives have lost faith in major institutions. Republicans are less likely than Democrats to put trust in the federal government, higher education and, of course, media. Is it possible that Republicans are also becoming more wary of their own party?

That thought occurred to me while reading this Associated Press article about South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. She has clashed with legislators of her own party over issues such as abortion, school prayer and the way racial history is taught in schools. Some legislators believe the governor is concentrating on divisive social issues to position herself for national politics while neglecting more basic bread-and-butter issues at home.

Regardless of how they feel, Noem’s stances haven’t hurt her politically. “Republican pollster Brent Buchanan says that in Donald Trump’s GOP, such intraparty squabbles aren’t a liability and may even be an asset for a politician trying to curry favor with the former president and the voters who support him,” according to the AP.

There’s nothing new about candidates in either party railing against “the establishment.” But it’s possible that bashing your own party could become almost as routine as running against Washington.

Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, points out that the trend of Republican Party organizations censuring Republican politicians appears to be going into hyperdrive. Last month, the Republican National Committee censured Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both GOP members of Congress, for serving on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. But local parties, specifically county parties, are also getting in on the act in a big way.

From 2016 to 2020, there were only one or two examples per year of county parties censuring politicians, Masket found. Last year, there were 28, all but five on the GOP side. More than half were aimed at politicians who’d voted to impeach Trump or failed to echo his “Big Lie” assertions about the 2020 election being stolen.

“All of this points to yet another signal of a Republican Party undergoing a purge,” Masket writes. “We’re seeing county party leaders trying to more emphatically assert which faction of the party is in charge and… that could dramatically reshape the GOP at its most fundamental levels of government.”
A bar graph from Ballotpedia showing the political party breakdown of filed congressional candidates as of March 7, 2022
Republicans Are Running: Some GOP candidates might be falling afoul of their county parties, but there are plenty of them running. As of last week, the number of Republicans who have filed for Congress — both House and Senate seats — outnumber Democrats, 1,190 to 842, according to Ballotpedia. That’s almost 40 percent more Republican candidates.

Republicans are also more eager when it comes to chasing legislative seats. In North Carolina, for example, Republicans are contesting all but one of the state’s 50 Senate seats, while Democrats failed to recruit candidates for 15 races. In the state House, Republicans are running in 111 of the 120 districts, while Democrats are running in only 92.

It’s one sign among many that Republicans are convinced this will be a great year for them. The president’s party nearly always loses seats in midterms. This becomes a self-reinforcing dynamic, with Republicans eager to run because they’re convinced it’s an opportune time and lots of Democrats retiring because they expect too rough a ride.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking at the 2022 CPAC conference in Orlando, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks at the 2022 CPAC conference at the Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.
(Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)
DeSantis’ Big Money: Here’s one more bit of good news for Republicans. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won election narrowly in 2018 with a margin of less than half a percentage point — 32,463 votes, out of more than 8 million cast. His position is more secure now.

Polls show that DeSantis enjoys comfortable leads over his prospective Democratic opponents. He certainly won’t be hurting for money. At the end of February, his campaign treasury had more than $88.5 million in cash on hand.


Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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