This is an excerpted from Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count by David Daley (Liveright/WW Norton).
The strategist who dared imagine Republican domination of Congress and the states has a serious choice to make: chicken wings or tater tots. In true bipartisan fashion, Chris Jankowski and I order both. We’re only six days out from the election, and over drinks at Quigley’s Pharmacy near Foggy Bottom, we confess our unease about someone of Donald Trump’s temperament occupying the Oval Office. Jankowski’s vision and intellect – as the unsung genius behind REDMAP, the audacious 2010 strategy to win control of state legislative chambers, then dominate the redistricting of states and the U.S. House — have earned the gushing admiration even of a ed even a progressive icon like Rachel Maddow. He is a loyal Republican through and through, yet I’d pick up the bar tab for a month if he actually voted for Trump.
The question on my mind for months—as Trump vanquished the GOP field and dispatched the likes of Rubio, Cruz, Kasich and Bush; threatened to torch the Republican Party; and jeopardized seemingly insurmountable Republican legislative majorities—has been whether Jankowski has been tossing and turning in fear not only that Trump would destroy his handiwork, but that his REDMAP strategy set this Frankenstein-monster-turned-president loose. Donald Trump’s election did not occur for any one reason. But many key factors—an angry and empowered conservative base, frustration with Washington gridlock and dysfunction, the evolution of the GOP into a largely white party, the decline of common ground in our political debates, the siloing of Americans into red and blue and the disappearance of the middle— were all exacerbated or fueled by REDMAP’s radical redistricting.
Jankowski doesn’t agree. Elements of Trump’s agenda might make him cringe, but Jankowski argues that the chasm between Wall Street and Main Street Republicans predates REDMAP—that the divide between the Fortune 500 wing of the party and the populists, between readers of the Wall Street Journal and Breitbart, has always been there. The connective tissue, he suggests, is outrage.
“One thing I’ve noticed in Republican primaries up and down the ballot is that anger has become its own ideology,” he says, and the GOP is picking up most of those voters. “Trump is a great example of that, but it’s part of the polarization.” The success of the Sanders campaign, Jankowski suggests, showed something similar happening on the left.
That creates a challenge for Republicans: “We have to not become the party of the alt-right,” he says. “We have to not play into what is fundamentally, demographically, a losing strategy. Also, it’s wrong. Just awful. But did REDMAP create that? We have an overwhelming number of statewide offices too,” he argues, from governors to attorneys general and secretaries of state, where the victories have little to do with redistricting advantage. The key for Republicans, he suggests, is finding a way to hold together a coalition that is more disparate than it looks in order to deliver the conservative agenda Republican voters expect now that the GOP has all the levers of power.
“Where the party goes with this? What Trump’s ideology is? That’s not clear. But we have this complete control, and if we don’t do something, it’ll be taken. It will go away,” Jankowski says. “Everybody sees in this the opportunity to achieve what they think should be done.”
That opportunity for complete control, of course, is what kept House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tethered to Trump during the campaign and in the first weeks of his presidency, even when he proposed Muslim registries and temporary travel bans, a border wall with Mexico, or bombing ISIS assets and taking Middle East oil as repayment. McConnell has been driven to entrench conservative power on the Supreme Court for a generation. Ryan seeks to roll back and redefine entitlement programs, from healthcare to Social Security. Both are eager to roll back the regulatory state. In Trump, they see Grover Norquist’s ideal—a Republican president with enough working digits to handle a pen. All of this creates potential messiness, Jankowski suggests: Trump’s nationalist policies often clash with McConnell’s traditional pro-business conservatism and Ryan’s Ayn Rand–inspired wonkery. But REDMAP’s holy grail, a trifecta in Washington, means that “people have smoothed that over—for now.”
“I cannot dispute the fact that we put in place personalities that are very polarizing and have led to the Freedom Caucus strengthening and Boehner having to leave. At the same time,” he says, “[Utah Senator] Mike Lee and Ted Cruz were the conscientious objectors to the Trump movement. That has nothing to do with the gerrymander. I don’t think you can connect those things. You cannot say it ruined everything, for lack of a better word. It has made that body less functional. Has it made the country polarized? Did it drive the dysfunction? No.”
Jankowski and many political scientists argue that our politics have been growing more polarized for years. That might well be true—but it doesn’t mean that gerrymandering hasn’t been an accelerant. When competitive districts disappear, and an electorate is already pre-polarized to vote red or blue, party primaries—or fear of having to face a primary—push members to extremes. And when members of Congress can’t lose, there are no consequences at the ballot box. A polarized electorate isn’t likely to toss an incumbent out, and a district drawn to discourage challengers won’t attract a viable opponent anyway.
Jankowski’s not convinced. “I think the districts are more competitive. They’re not drawn to protect that incumbent. They’re drawing to maximize the partisan advantage.”
The problem, for mainstream Republicans and for the nation, is that it’s maximizing the extreme partisan’s advantage. This is a system that rewards politicians to move harder right, to play to the base. The partisan advantage ensures that Republicans will win the seat. The only electoral consequences come in a GOP primary, where defeat, thus far, has come only to those deemed insufficiently far to the right. Indeed, Jankowski’s current projects make it very clear that he believes his party could be on the verge of a serious image problem. He points to the Future Majority Project’s efforts to grow the number of women and minority candidates running as Republicans. “If the Republican Party doesn’t improve its performance with non-white voters, we will be extinct. We’ll be a regional party by the late 2020s.” He’s also working on what he calls a “sophisticated” effort to influence the kind of candidates who can win GOP primaries for governor and attorney general in 2018. Jankowski wants to be sure electable conservatives can be honest in GOP primaries and still win—so the Republicans can avoid being dragged down by future Todd Akins (the Senate candidate who discussed “legitimate rape”) or, perhaps, Donald Trumps.
“This is probably going to get me in a little bit of trouble,” he says. “But the more bombastic personalities that are out there, well, the more it drags our party in a position that we probably don’t want to be in long-term.” Republicans need to nominate different kinds of candidates in swing states than they do in bright-red states, he says. Having a party primary become a contest to be the craziest conservative “is a weakness we’re going to adjust.”
Listen to Jankowski and his sophisticated plan seems very simple: it’s about finding candidates who can communicate conservative principles without losing the ability to govern. “The Tea Party has sent a group of folks who I admire. They are really willing to lose an election rather than go along with something.” Republicans got into trouble, he suggests, because they promised the base something they weren’t willing to deliver. You can’t lie to voters and not face consequences. “That’s what created Trump,” he offers. “But you can’t sustain a permanent majority simply by saying no to everything and shutting down the government.”
It becomes clear that his focus in sustaining REDMAP into a second decade means nominating the right Republicans more than it means defeating Democrats. Republicans have the most important power: “We draw these state legislative lines.” Those state legislatures have drawn congressional lines that have shrunk the number of competitive seats by half over the last six years. Democrats took three chambers in 2016, sure. Jankowski knows they were inconsequential to the big picture: “There are only so many congressional seats in Nevada and New Mexico.” Democrats need 24 seats to retake the House in 2018—but that’s a steeper run than most think. “There’s swing seats— there’s just less of them. There’s not enough for them to go after and put in play. In order to have a big pick-up, you need to have twice as many seats as you need. Even Trump at his worst in the polling, late September, early October, had 21 seats in play.
“Best-case scenario, it could break well for them,” he says. “It’s not going to be easy. There are about 35 competitive congressional seats— which is half the amount from 2010—but they’re spread out. They’re not all at the swing counties, or in the swing states. They’re kind of everywhere: Nebraska, Nevada, Florida. There’s no way that a certain state or issue could flip it.”
I share Jankowski’s analysis of how hard it will be for Democrats to recover. But I expected more unease about the political legacy of REDMAP. “We wanted a lasting impact—but it’s a disproportionate impact that’s lasting. The back-to-back wave elections. The technology. The amount of data we have on voter behavior. The predictability of voter behavior. The polarization that exists prior to the gerrymander—all of that leads to something that definitely exceeded expectations.”
The Democrats are coming. Jankowski doesn’t think they appreciate the enormity of the task they face. “The Obama announcement, I mean, it’s flattering . . .” Jankowski has a pretty good sense of what they’ll try. “The fact that Holder is heading it up suggests that it’s more legal than political. Obama has to fundraise for state Democrats. He has to help them get the ground back that he is clearly so responsible for losing. Regardless of redistricting, he has to do that. Holder is there, I think, because the systemic change they want to see has to come through litigation or ballot initiatives. You’re going to see a sophisticated, well-funded, nonpolitical piece of this that could be a game-changer. We’ll have to see.”
Does he have any advice for the president, Holder and the Democrats trying to undo his master plan in time for the next census? “Pack a lunch.” Jankowski smiles, and it conveys “good luck” more than “bring it on.” It is the smile of someone fairly certain he’ll win, and pretty sure he’ll be shaking his head as his opponents flail. That Charlie Brown will not connect on this football, either. “I would say they’d better pack a lunch because they’re going to be there a while.”
David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” (Norton). He is a senior fellow at FairVote, the former editor in chief of Salon, and has written for the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the Boston Globe and New York magazine.