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This is Why the GOP House is Safe in 2018

This is an excerpted from Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count [1] 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” [2] (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.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "This is Why the GOP House is Safe in 2018"

#1 Comment By libertarian jerry On July 17, 2017 @ 4:29 am

Does it really matter? The Progressives(socialists) have,over the past 100 plus years,gotten all of their goals enacted into law. All 10 Planks to the Communist Manifesto(albeit in modified form)are the law of the land. A Progressive Income Tax,Central Banking,fiat currency,Public Education,control of the economy through the Regulatory State,Socialized Medicine(Medicare,Medicaid,Obamacare),state ownership of large swaths of land,the numbering and storing information on all of the citizens,etc.etc. What have the Republicans done to resist this tidal wave of collectivism? Nothing. Nothing but fight a rearguard action,complain,blame and when in power keep the system in place by playing the role of the conservative socialist caretaker. Nothing major gets repealed or dismantled. All the Republicans want to do is run the system with”conservative values” while keeping the system in place. This is what the Trump election victory was all about.The people who voted for Trump were fed up with business as usual and wanted real change. Unfortunately,most Republicans in power want to keep things as usual. When the Democrats eventually retake power,which is inevitable,the Republicans will have squandered their last chance to make a real change and the last nails in the coffin of the Republic will be pounded into place. A Pity.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 17, 2017 @ 7:20 am

” . . . the evolution of the GOP into a largely white party . . .”

This is enough to undermine the credibility of the advance. The Republican has always been dominated by whites, and the shift to nearly an all white party occurred in the late 50’s.

The Republicans abandoned blacks after the Civil war, they did nothing but capitalize on color issues, ever after, eroding the support most black americans had eagerly lent it.

Making this distinction is odd.

” . . . 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.”

uhhh Sen. Akins was not brought down by his comments. He was brought down by foolish knee-jerk reactionary responses by the likes of Republicans. His own team in a panic as they are panicking with the current executive. The party should make no excuses, the reason the party was so out of favor is because of the party, not Mr. Trump.

As for the previous executive, I don’t think he will have the influence that one may assume. After all he was a huge disappointment after the election as his policies were far more hawkish than promised. Despite his “common people: facde, he is saddled with elitist leanings and betrayed the largest sentiments of democrats. His leadership domestically was on wedge issues. Let’s face it, homosexual marriage is not going to be the issue in times of economic gaps and illegal immigration, and outsourcing, and wage stagnation and on and on . . .

“He has to help them get the ground back that he is clearly so responsible for losing.”

Nice try, that’s in the hands of Sec. Clinton she took the mantle and went her own way. I would grant that a lot of the advocacy by the previos exec came back to haunt them, but again, that was the agenda of most democratic leadership, especially in foreign policy, clearly not one of his making, despite caving to the demand.

#3 Comment By Howard On July 17, 2017 @ 8:06 am

“… an angry and empowered conservative base ….”

Does such a thing even really exist? The term “conservative base” sometimes means those who voted Republican in the last election, or who will or might in the next election, or registered Republicans, or even “politically active” Republicans — depending, it seems, on which group best aligns itself with the hopes and desires that the one using the term wishes to ascribe to them. It certainly is intended to remove from consideration anyone who would complicate the argument and who thus should not be considered a “true Scotsman”. It’s clear that when a Ted Cruz supporter talks about the “conservative base”, and a Rand Paul supporter talks about the “conservative base”, and a Donald Trump supporter talks about the “conservative base”, they are actually talking about three different things. And no, this is not a case of “the blind men and the elephant”; a “base”, for example, that both supports Ted Cruz and despises Ted Cruz is not a meaningful entity. In the end, it appears that “the conservative base” is merely rhetorical legerdemain.

#4 Comment By JLF On July 17, 2017 @ 8:19 am

“Obama has to fundraise for state Democrats. He has to help them get the ground back that he is clearly so responsible for losing.”

I keep hearing this, but I don’t know why it is so. Other than having an “ethnic” name and black face, what did Obama do that any other Democrat wouldn’t do to gain this opprobrium?

#5 Comment By Ted On July 17, 2017 @ 10:38 am

Proudly disenfranchising the American people! What good people. Who doesn’t like less representative government?

#6 Comment By Dan A. Davis On July 17, 2017 @ 11:50 am

In view of the gap between when thee words were written and today, I would say the hopes of the really smart strategist have worked out about like the hopes of all such Masters of the Universe.
The underlying premise seems to be that humans are a mob to be manipulated by the vanguard. How Marxian for “conservatives” to buy into. (No, wait, perhaps there’s a sinister reason they call it “red” state?)
Very forgetful, too.
The “masses” who voted for Trump were, in many cases, the same people who voted for Hope and Change. They were still voting for Hope and Change. And are going to be (if not already) as disappointed as before. I wouldn’t be so sure about that legislative lock on the country. Gerrymander only goes so far.

#7 Comment By Howard On July 17, 2017 @ 12:07 pm

@EliteCommInc. — Actually, the main takeaway from the whole Todd Akin affair is that if a politician says something that the prominent Republicans think is really and truly wrong and offensive, they and the party know how to react. It puts the lie to the claim that the party has no way of enforcing discipline or standing firmly FOR some issues and AGAINST others. The Akin affair shows that when the party doesn’t react, or reacts with a mere finger wag, it is because the party doesn’t think anything seriously wrong has been said.

#8 Comment By What Will Be On July 17, 2017 @ 2:26 pm

I don’t think that the House is safe in 2018. Here’s why:


Trump not only continued to let foreign workers in to the country to take American jobs, he’s actually raising the caps and letting companies import even more.

This is the last straw for me. F*** Trump. I mean, really, f*** him. I voted for him and he completely f***ed me, and I’m going to return the favor next year.

#9 Comment By Ted On July 17, 2017 @ 5:04 pm

@libertarian jerry Trump was elected promising a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending and to explicitly not cut a dollar from Medicaid. Why do you think he was elected by people who wanted to cut the government to the bone? There’s pretty much zero evidence Trump supporters were supporting a conservative candidate.

#10 Comment By Clifford Story On July 17, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

Proverbs 16:18. Nothing is forever. The arrogant behavior of the radicals in power may be enough to get them thrown out of power, rigged elections and all.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 17, 2017 @ 7:38 pm

” . . . they and the party know how to react. It puts the lie to the claim that the party has no way of enforcing discipline or standing firmly FOR some issues and AGAINST others.”

excuse the delay.

Two responses.

1. Republicans routinely react.

2. In this case they over reacted. And shot themselves in the foot. Certainly the choice of words were awkward, but he was getting is not quirky off the wall theory.

All it would have taken is a few minutes on the net or a chat among doing pregnancy research and they would have noted that what he referenced was not either inaccurate or bizarre. No their response was akin to the democrats and they could have made that situation an intelligent learning moment and still have criticized the phrasing. No. They jumped on the silly band wagon – as to convenience.

What he said was upon examination harmless.

But they cost themselves and someone I think was an honorable man a voice. I am beginning to appreciate the idea of prudence in response more and more. One can be strategic and nuanced as well. It would have been great to have heard some intelligence. Needless self inflicted would by the supposed leadership and excuse my whine . . .

The same leadership who over reacted to 9/11 and his comments nothing of the magnitude. Sometimes students will come to me and say,

“OMgoodness”, you know what so and so said or did . . .

A listen a pause is enough to change the nature of the whatever was going on and prompted what considered outrageous comment.

Funny because just last week, a liberal student was sharing with me about the potential hormonal responses, I think he called it, that a woman has when she is stressed that might prevent pregnancy — I consider rape an extremely stressful experience.

They did him in needlessly and that includes Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter and the rest of the elite mob.

Rape is always a minefield, but Republicans had better learn to navigate it with some confidence and knowledge as opposed to an excuse me, for putting my big toe in your safe space.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 17, 2017 @ 7:44 pm

Sen Akin was not truly wrong — not even close.

#13 Comment By Conewago On July 17, 2017 @ 8:10 pm

Jankowski is a sophist shill!

#14 Comment By cka2nd On July 17, 2017 @ 9:09 pm

JLF says:

“’Obama has to fundraise for state Democrats. He has to help them get the ground back that he is clearly so responsible for losing.’”

“I keep hearing this, but I don’t know why it is so. Other than having an “ethnic” name and black face, what did Obama do that any other Democrat wouldn’t do to gain this opprobrium?”

One could have substituted Bill Clinton for Obama in the above quote and dated it to 2000 or 2001 and it would have been just as true, if for other reasons. Clinton left the party in tatters, and Obama, Pelosi and Co. have done the same, basically undoing everything that Howard Dean had accomplished in reviving the party.

#15 Comment By Howard On July 17, 2017 @ 9:40 pm

@EliteCommInc. — I agree they react — whenever they actually feel strongly about a topic. When they don’t, they tell us to go pound sand, yet still expect us to vote for them. They count on voters paying attention only to campaign promises and not to what they did and failed to do with power when they had it. Sadly, they usually get away with that.

#16 Comment By WorkingClass On July 17, 2017 @ 9:43 pm

The beauty of the Trump victory is that BOTH Democrats and Republicans lost. Democrats and Republican ruined the country.

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 18, 2017 @ 4:17 am

“I keep hearing this, but I don’t know why it is so. Other than having an “ethnic” name and black face . . .”

The previous executive is a big boy and I am sure he can defend himself. I have oppose most of what this executive stood for as a conservative. But the black face reference is over the top.

Whatever our disagreements with him, and I had plenty —-

We have a long way to go.

#18 Comment By Jason On July 18, 2017 @ 4:25 am

As smart as he is, Jankowski is a fool. A political operative who cannot recognize that ANY policy position held by mainstream, traditional Republican won’t sell to a majority of any non-white segment of the electorate is a fool. All the polling and research shows this – Blacks, Latinos, Asians – they all like big government. All like Socialism. All don’t like the Empire and our service to our Israeli Masters (well, I don’t like that part either).

Wonks like Jankowski will quote W’s amazing Latino electorate performance in 2004 where… the Democrats only got 50% more of their vote instead of 75% more. So silly. And, lest we forget, W doubled down on open borders ideology and the Community Reinvestment Act inspired subprime mortgages to unqualified non-whites. How did that turn out?

Demographics IS destiny. The only hope for Republicans is to completely cut off future immigration flows (legal and illegal), ship back any LPRs who have become a public charge, and make citizenship restricted (as it is supposed to be) to those LPRs who learn English and are net contributors.

Boldly fighting to not become a Brazilian style basket case in a few decades should be the Republican Party platform. Anything else is a waste of breath.

#19 Comment By Julie Lockhart On July 18, 2017 @ 9:59 am

EliteCommInc I gave you a pause to think about what you wrote, read it twice, thought about it more, and concluded that your statement infers: if a woman truly and legitiiately is being raped, then her hormones will shriek and prevent the pregnancy. If she does get pregnant after the rape, chances are she really wasn’t that stressed or upset. Maybe she even enjoyed the rape. Did I get that right?