Border skirmishes: The gerrymandering game pulling Republicans apart

As House Republicans deftly redrawn congressional electoral borders to their individual advantage, the gerrymandering masters have, nationally, shot their party in the foot.

Alongside the direct election of judges and sheriffs, entrusting elected politicians with the task of drawing electoral maps is among the more puzzling features of American democracy and yet that is exactly how US Congressional districts are determined in most states. Naturally, given half a chance, both Democrats and Republicans wield this power to maximum electoral effect. For today’s Republican Party, however, state-sanctioned gerrymandering has created unintended consequences for which it may pay a heavy price.

In the 2010 midterm elections, notable for the emergence of the so-called ‘Tea Party’, the Democrats suffered their worst defeat in 72 years. Fueled by economic anxiety, deficit panic and fears about President Obama’s proposed health reforms, conservative voters raced to the polls as disillusioned Democrats sat on their hands. Republicans picked up 62 seats in the House of Representatives, claiming a decisive majority – but that was just the beginning. The GOP also made unprecedented gains down the ballot, defeating 11 Democratic governors, and wresting control of 13 state legislatures from Democrats. Predictably enough, in the years since, the opportunistic redrawing of electoral maps has emerged as a top-tier priority. 

Thanks in part to these efforts, House Republicans avoided significant losses in 2012, an otherwise decent year for Democrats. Abysmal approval numbers aside, few expect many seats will change hands in next year’s mid-terms either. In fact, only a handful of Republican incumbents are considered vulnerable because, for the most part, they represent districts artfully configured to put them outside of the reach of the Democratic Party. 

Such machinations do not come without a cost. While Republicans representing safe-as-houses districts have little to fear from prospective Democratic opponents, they increasingly face primary challenges from the right. In the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, middle-of-the-road Republicans challenged by Tea Party candidates almost always lost, skewing the political calculation for many Republicans. Rather than contesting the middle ground in a general election against a Democrat, their foremost challenge is to fend off defeat in the GOP primary by convincing the most right-wing elements of their conservative bona fides. 

All of which goes to explain why House Republicans are falling over each other to trash the immigration reform bill which passed the Senate with a comfortable bipartisan majority. Conservatives hate the bill – they claim it amounts to “amnesty for illegals" – but immigration reform enjoys strong support across a broad spectrum of the US electorate.

Since it will further entrench the Democrat’s decisive advantage among the fast-growing Latino population, few doubt that killing the immigration bill, which appears inevitable, is disastrous for the GOP as a national party. Their 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain, put it in stark terms:

“If we don’t [enact immigration reform]…the demographics are clear that the Republican Party cannot win a national election," the Arizona Senator told PBS NewsHour last week. "That’s just a fact.”

McCain knows that states like his risk following New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado into the Democratic column unless Republicans can turn the tide among Hispanic voters.

Eyeing similar trends, some Democratic strategists even express guarded optimism about the party’s medium term prospects in Texas. If the Republicans were to lose there – unlikely for the next decade at least – it would make it next to impossible for any Republican nominee (having effectively ceded California and New York) to weave a path to the White House.

The GOP’s demographic problems extend beyond the Hispanic community. Obama prevailed among women voters by a margin of 12 points last year, the largest gender gap on record. But far from adjusting their belligerent stance on issues that alienate moderate and younger women – like abortion, same sex marriage and contraception – Republicans in DC, as well as governors and state legislators across the country, seem to be doubling down. So far this year alone, more than 50 bills restricting abortion have been passed into law across more than 20 states. House Republicans have joined the fray, threatening to scuttle the 2013-14 budget bill unless the president accepts provisions designed to restrict abortions for low-income women in the District of Columbia.

At first glance, when you consider the party’s problems with Hispanics and women, the approach of Republicans on these issues appears wrong-headed, self-destructive even.

But there is method in this apparent madness. To paraphrase Paul Keating paraphrasing former NSW premier Jack Lang, these conservative House members are simply backing the horse named ‘Self-Interest’. As long as the greatest threat to their political survival comes from the Tea Party flank, House Republicans will continue down this path, only to accelerate as primary season nears. They know it’s a disaster for the national party. They know that the likely outcome of this rightward lurch is that the GOP will keep losing presidential elections, even if they hold their own in Congress through creative electoral cartography. In the end, though, the calculation is straightforward: after weighing their own job security and career prospects against the fortunes of some hypothetical future presidential nominee, it’s not even close. 

A former advisor to Steve Bracks and Gareth Evans, Phil Quin is a New York-based writer and consultant. Find him on Twitter @philquin

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