The Cost of the GOP’s Redistricting Wins

The party can’t escape its base.

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Sometimes in politics you can lose by winning. Witness the problems the Republican Party is experiencing trying to govern with a majority that is widely believed to be unshakeable in the near future thanks to the redistricting job GOP state legislators did after the 2010 census.

Politico's Alex Isenstadt has a report today suggesting that the party's success has trapped Republicans in a conservative box, "narrowing the party's appeal at a time when some GOP leaders say its future rests on the opposite happening."

This isn't necessarily a new thought. As I wrote back in early March:

In a sense the GOP's success in the last round of redistricting – creating what the Cook Political Report sees as over 200 safe GOP districts – is proving Pyrrhic. If you're a Republican member of Congress your greatest existential threat comes from primary challenges, so that's what shapes your agenda, even if it comes at the cost of national political viability.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

I was writing then about the GOP's doubling down on the same policy agenda that voters rejected last November. That hasn't changed in the intervening months. In fact, if you watched most House Republicans (and more than a few senators and other elected officials) you would not know that the party lost last year on multiple fronts: The presidential race wasn't close and Obama became the first candidate since Dwight Eisenhower to crack 51 percent two elections in a row; Democrats picked up seats in both chambers of Congress and won more House votes than did the GOP, though Republicans held the lower chamber because, in large part, of their redistricting success. Meanwhile, the national GOP brand remains terrible.

Isenstadt is writing about "recurring drama within the House Republican Conference – from the surprise meltdown on the farm bill to the looming showdown over immigration reform," but it's the same basic problem: Conservatives unchecked by practical considerations such as what will help the party nationally.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The Politico piece has a couple of telling nuggets:

Of the 234 House Republicans, just four now represent districts that favor Democrats, according to data compiled by The Cook Political Report. That's down from the 22 Republicans who resided in Democratic-friendly seats following the 2010 midterms, prior to the line-drawing.

They're also serving districts that are increasingly white. After redistricting and the 2012 election, according to The Cook Political Report, the average Republican congressional district went from 73 percent white to 75 percent white. And even as Hispanics have emerged as America's fastest-growing demographic group, only about one-tenth of Republicans represent districts where the Latino population is 25 percent or higher.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

The piece also has the obligatory conservative quote about how what the party really needs is not to broaden its appeal but more starkly state its case. But this proceeds from an incorrect assumption of conservatism's nationwide appeal. I am always reminded of this passage from Ryan Lizza's Eric Cantor profile a few months ago. Lizza spoke with Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Price, a conservative leader:

He explained how surprised he was when one of his colleagues from a Northern state told him that he favored a tax increase on millionaires. "It hit me that what he was hearing when he's going home to a Republican district in a blue state is completely different than what I'm hearing when I go home to a Republican district in a red state," he said. "My folks are livid about this stuff. His folks clearly weren't. And so we weren't even starting from the same premise."

Price is no tea party freshman just finding his way around the Congress. He's the vice chairman of the House Budget Committee and has been in Congress for eight years. And yet it only just recently occurred to him that not every district holds the same political beliefs as his. That's a real problem for Republicans and it's one their redistricting success is only exacerbating.

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