Redistricting, the making of political maps, occurs every decade in the United States. It is an incredibly fraught process. Drawing redistricting maps to favor one party or another has been pursued by both parties over the long history of this country, and Kentucky is no exception.
At the end of the last decade, the House and Senate were divided, with the House controlled by Democrats and the Senate in the hands of Republicans. The map drawing fopr the redistricting fell to each of the parties respectively as a compromise: Democrats drew the House districts and Republicans drew the Senate districts. These divided gerrymanders worked well for both parties for most of the decade, but now, it appears that the Democratic gerrymander has come apart – and maybe it has even flipped around!
Democrats have not won the consolidated vote for the State House this decade. In 2012, the Democrats won 48% of the total House vote but managed to win 55 House seats – the apportionment of votes won Democrats about 7 extra seats. This trick worked again in 2014. But, in 2016, everything came apart for the Democrats – their vote share tumbled to 40%, dropping 9 points from the previous election. But, something even more interesting happened – the total seats the Democrats won actually decreased by MORE than the percentage of votes they won! If the gerrymander had stood up, Democrats would have ended up with 45-47 seats. They ended with 36 – four fewer than their vote share suggested they should have.
The 2016 bloodbath led to a ton of policy change. Right to work, charter schools, the pension debacle, several abortion restrictions, and many other conservative policy dreams were fulfilled. As is natural in American politics, a bounceback occurred. In 2018, Democrats increased their vote share to 46% – a full 6 points higher than 2016 and about in line with what Democrats earned in 2012 and 2014. However, the increase in vote share only resulted in three extra seats. The gerrymander failed miserably in 2018.
What is going on here? The maps didn’t change, so how did what was once a Democratic redistricting gerrymander turn into what can only be called a Republican-favoring map? Two things: Democratic clustering and an increasing number of contested elections. In 2012, Republicans let 27 seats go uncontested – they failed to run any candidate in nearly half of the seats where Democrats won. In 2014, they didn’t do much better: 26 elections went uncontested by Republicans. In 2016, they did a significantly better job of recruitment, and only 11 seats went uncontested by Republicans. And in 2018, they failed to contest only seven total seats.
Democrats are equally guilty of leaving votes on the table. Their number of uncontested seats went from 28 in 2012 to 23 in 2014 to 25 in 2016 to 8 in 2018. The Democratic disaster of 2016 should certainly partly be blamed on the fact that Republicans contested so many seats that year while Democrats did not. However, in 2018, we had nearly a full slate of contested elections – Democrats ran 92 candidates while Republicans ran 93. And we still had Democrats underperforming their vote total.
A note about the maps: these show consolidated vote for House seats by county — they do NOT show vote by district. So, for Warren county, these maps collect all the precincts in Warren county, including parts of the elections for HDs 16, 17, 19, 20, 22, and 23, and consolidates them.
I think the biggest reason that Democrats have lost the map is because their voters are increasingly clustering in urban areas. The map above shows that in 2012, Democrats were extremely competitive in Western Kentucky. Even though some seats in that region went uncontested, many were tough elections, and Democrats still came out on top. Eastern Kentucky didn’t see as many competitive elections, and as such looks like a massive block of blue. As time went along, however, the number of counties where Democrats competed shrank significantly. In 2016, several counties which were solid blue in 2012 move to solid red.
In 2018, Democrats got pretty close to their total vote number from 2012 and 2014, despite the fact that many more elections were contested. However, the number of counties where Democrats got more votes than Republicans shrunk from 59 to 32. Meanwhile, the percentage of vote that Democrats earned in the two urban counties grew significantly. In 2012, Democrats won 51% of the House Vote in Fayette County and 61% of the House Vote in Jefferson County. In 2018, the Democrats won 64% of the vote in Fayette County and 65% of the vote in Jefferson County. Because these two counties are so much bigger than the other 118, the percentage increase belies the huge amount that the margin increased. The raw vote margin increased between the two counties from 70,177 to 114,459 — a 62% increase.
In conclusion, the redistricting gerrymander Democrats developed at the beginning of the decade has crumbled, along with the majorities they used to enjoy. The playing field is new and Democrats need to find new and different ways to compete. The strategies of this decade will no longer work.
However, with change comes opportunity. If Democrats do the work, there are ways to win with the new status quo. Whether or not the party finds new winning strategies and puts them into practice remains to be seen.