More votes, fewer seats

In some Republican controlled states, gerrymandering has made it all but impossible for Democrats to retake assemblies, even when they win a majority of the statewide vote.

Challenging the GOP’s redistricting edge required a multipronged approach: Holder’s group has filed or assisted a dozen lawsuits against gerrymandered maps, supported local candidates whose races had implications for redistricting, and backed state ballot measures to establish independent redistricting commissions. “He’s a uniting force between the different pieces of the Democratic ecosystem to get onto a shared strategy to rebuild Democratic power in the states,” said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and an NDRC board member. “Having a central electoral coordinating hub is really important.”

The Democrats’ gains in 2018 were impressive. Holder’s group raised $35 million—comparable to what REDMAP raised in 2010—helping Democrats flip about 300 state legislative seats, six legis­lative chambers, and seven governorships. In four states, including Wiscon­sin, Republicans lost sole control of state government, and with it their ability to single-handedly draw new districts. The NDRC targeted 230 state seats held by Republicans, focusing on suburban areas that were changing demographically; Democrats won 60 percent of them. Holder stumped for candidates in 24 states. “We gave financial support to races that otherwise might not have gotten financial support,” he said. “I campaigned in races that would not have gotten that kind of high-level attention.”

Party control of state legislatures

Though he hoped to elect more Demo­crats, Holder’s overriding goal was to make the redistricting process less skewed, putting him in conflict with some Democrats who wanted to maximize partisan gain. When New Jersey Democrats proposed giving legislative leaders more power over the drawing of district lines last year, Holder quickly denounced the plan. “I’m here for a fair process, not to gerrymander for Democrats,” he told me.

(By the way that Supreme Court decision to not allow federal courts to decide state voting maps used that New Jersey decision by democrats as partial justification for that controversial ruling)

Holder, who has never run for elected office, is an unlikely public face for a major political campaign. He’s charismatic by the standards of a career lawyer, but no one would mistake him for Obama on the stump, though they do share a love of dad jokes. Still, Holder’s devotion to technocratic details can be an advantage when it comes to the nuances of redistricting. Holder said he viewed the fight against gerrymandering as a “jigsaw puzzle” and delighted in figuring out which pieces went where.

His efforts in Wisconsin began in March 2018, when the NDRC spent half a million dollars to elect Rebecca Dallet to the state Supreme Court, a huge amount for a state judicial race. Her victory brought Democrats one seat closer to ending the conservative majority on the court, which can rule on state voting laws. To increase African American turnout, Holder’s group funded BLOC, which knocked on 35,000 doors in Milwaukee in the spring of 2018 and helped achieve higher turnout in Dallet’s race in neighborhoods like Merrill Park than in a 2015 Supreme Court race.

Holder returned to Milwaukee last fall to campaign for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers, for whom BLOC knocked on more than 173,000 doors in black neighborhoods that statewide political candidates usually bypassed. Evers defeated Gov. Scott Walker by just 30,000 votes, giving Democrats veto power over the state’s redistricting maps in 2021.

Holder also continued the efforts he’d begun as attorney general by taking Republi­cans to court for infringing on voting rights. When Walker refused to hold special elections for vacant state legislative seats in February 2018, Holder’s group sued and won. After the 2018 election, when Republicans cut back on early voting, Holder’s group sued and won again.

Walker criticized Holder’s work in Wisconsin on Twitter several months before the election; after losing, Walker became finance chair of a new group, the National Republican Redistricting Trust, focused on combating the NDRC. “My role is to counter Eric Holder’s efforts,” Walker tweeted. “He, with [t]he help of former President Obama, have raised some $200 million that they are using in court and on the campaign trail. Their goal is to secure Nancy Pelosi’s control as Speaker for a decade or more.” Walker dramatically overstated the amount raised by Holder’s group, but it was telling that the former Wisconsin governor—whose party Holder had been desperately trying to catch up with—now thought Holder was ahead of him.

The question now is whether Holder’s group can lock in and expand the gains made in 2018. Over the next year, the NDRC plans to almost triple its staff to 30, and the absorption of Obama’s vaunted Organizing for Action list will give Holder’s group access to hundreds of thousands of new volunteers to work on state races. “The single most impor­tant thing that could be done at the grassroots level over the next few years is to make sure the rules of the road are fair,” Obama said on a call with these volunteers in December 2018.

Eric Holder speaks to Black Leaders Organizing for Communities in Milwaukee.

Democrats are within six seats of flipping state legislative chambers in Pennsyl­vania, North Carolina, Minne­sota, Arizona, and Michigan. “We’re much closer across the country than people think,” said the DLCC’s Post. But the GOP still controls 62 of 99 state legislative chambers nationwide and holds the governor’s mansion and both legislative bodies in 22 states, compared to 14 for Democrats. The bulk of the NDRC’s efforts will focus on five Republican-controlled gerrymandered states: Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Texas, and North Carolina. Gaining seats there will mean targeting districts in conservative exurbs where Democrats came up short in 2018. Mark Gersh, a Democratic redistricting expert working with Holder’s group, said the team is “trying to figure out whether Trump’s plummeting popularity and behavior might enable us to go beyond the parts we know we can win, because there’s not enough of them. We won all the low-hanging fruit last time.”

There’s momentum, though. The once-wonky issue of voting rights has become a rallying cry for Democrats. In 2018, voters in five states approved ballot initiatives that curbed gerrymandering. When Democrats took control of the House, their first piece of legislation was a sweeping reform bill that called for independent redistricting commissions to draw all House districts. (The proposal died in the Senate after Republican leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold a vote on it.) Schumer said in March that the fight for voting rights should be one of the Democrats’ top three issues, alongside climate change and income inequality. Voting rights are “part of a basket of issues that are motivating to people who feel like the character of our democracy is being threatened and that democracy itself is being manipulated,” said Axelrod. But Democrats are still in jeopardy of ignoring the state and local races that will determine the country’s voting maps. “Our concern is there’s wall-to-wall coverage of Trump scandals, wall-to-wall coverage of crowd size and presidential announcements, and our job is to continue to make sure people know that the next decade of democracy is on the line in 2020,” said Post.

Democratic strategists working on down-ballot races say the presidential campaign is siphoning away resources. “It’s harder to recruit people [to run], it’s harder to get attention to these races, it’s harder to raise money for them,” said Amanda Litman, executive director of Run for Something, which recruits progressive candidates for local offices. “Quite a few of the donors we work really close with have been hesitant to re engage, either because they’re tapped out from 2018 or they’re waiting for the presidential race to shake out.” Litman’s group is coordinating with the NDRC to recruit state legislative candidates to run in every district in the 12 states Holder is targeting in 2020, but she said reaching Run for Something’s $3 million fundraising goal this year “is like pulling teeth.” That’s small change for presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, who each raised about twice that sum on the first day of their campaigns, but it could make the difference in flipping multiple state legislative chambers, Litman said.

More money might have changed the outcome of the Wisconsin Supreme Court race. Lisa Neubauer, the progressive judge backed by Holder, was favored to win. But in the final week of the race, the Republican State Leadership Committee, the same group that bankrolled the GOP’s takeover of the state legislature in 2010, launched a $1.3 million ad campaign for Neubauer’s opponent, Brian Hagedorn, an ultraconservative judge and former chief counsel to Walker. Meanwhile, Republicans made Holder a talking point—a Facebook ad from Hagedorn admonished, “We can’t let Eric Holder reshape Wisconsin’s Supreme Court”—and Neubauer called on Holder and other outside investors to stay out of the race. Turnout surged in conservative, rural parts of the state, and Hagedorn won by about 6,000 votes, cementing a right-wing majority on the court through at least 2023.

The day after the election, Holder spoke at the annual convention of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. A dozen Democratic presidential candidates were there, and none had campaigned for Neubauer. “It seems I’m the only one here who isn’t running for president in 2020,” Holder joked. He’d flirted with his own long-shot presidential bid but decided against it, in part to remain focused on redistricting. He said “we should have won” the Supreme Court race and worried that the presidential contenders weren’t talking enough about the down-ballot contests that Democrats need to win to reverse the GOP’s redistricting edge.

Holder was dismayed that he’d been the only prominent Democrat to campaign for Neubauer. “I’m still a little bit wound up about this one,” he told me two weeks after the election. “This should be a wake-up call for us. I felt a little lonely out there in Wisconsin.”

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