This year, voters seem mostly focused on pensions, taxes, and education.
But a sleeper issue could doom the state Democratic party for at least a decade—maybe longer.
“This is the major issue no one is talking about.”
– Sen. Morgan McGarvey
“It’s the tool the Republicans will use to decimate the voice of Democrats in Kentucky.”
– Rep. Susan Westrom
What is this issue that could so damage Kentucky Democrats? Redistricting and gerrymandering.
Going into Nov. 6, the Republicans command a hefty 27-11 Senate majority and enjoy a whopping 63-37 advantage in the House.
Hence, McGarvey and Westrom aren’t crying wolf, says retiring state Rep. Gerald Watkins (D-Paducah).
If the Republicans hold serve—or add to their majorities—in the next two elections, the GOP will try to gerrymander the Democrats into oblivion after the 2020 census, according to Watkins. “The Republicans want to hold the majority for a long, long time,” he said.
What is gerrymandering?
“Gerrymandering” means egregiously drawing district lines to favor your party. It’s named for early 19th-century Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, a Democratic-Republican who tried to so proscribe the rival Federalists.
Republicans have ruled the Kentucky Senate roost outright since 2000. The GOP flipped the House in 2016, pushing out 17 Democrats, including Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg).
Grabbing back the House and Senate in just one election is a tall order for the Democrats. But Democratic activist Daniel Hurt thinks his party will come close in the House.
“I’m sticking to my prediction that we’ll gain as many as 10 House seats,” said Hurt, who is managing campaigns for Sen. Dorsey Ridley of Henderson and House hopeful Abigail Barnes of Salem.
A 10-seat swing would leave the Democrats just 4 seats shy of a majority. “If we defeat Gov. Matt Bevin next year, getting the House back is more than doable in 2020,” said Hurt.
House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins is bullish about winning back the House this go-round. “I’m the most optimistic I’ve ever been about our chances to re-take the Kentucky House,” said the Sandy Hook Democrat.
“I have crisscrossed the state multiple times and have seen crowds for our candidates like I’ve never seen. Many voters said they would ‘remember in November,’ and by all accounts, they look ready to make that vow come true.”
Added Adkins: “Redistricting is one of the many reasons why this year’s election is so important to the people of Kentucky.”“Redistricting is one of the many reasons why this year’s election is so important to the people of Kentucky.” – Rocky AdkinsClick To Tweet
Redistricting in other states
Hurt and Adkins are painfully aware that Republican majorities in a slew of other statehouses have used redistricting to marginalize Democrats.
“After the 2010 elections, Republicans flexed their newly acquired power in the states,” Dan Balz recently wrote in The Washington Post. “In addition to implementing a conservative policy agenda, they worked to cement their power by drawing favorable congressional and legislative districts. Those district boundaries have given the GOP a disproportionate share of House seats, based on the overall popular vote in many states.”
Balz’s column reflects the hot-topic status of GOP congressional district gerrymandering in this election cycle. In other states, Democratic candidates are using the issue against the Republicans.
Redistricting in Kentucky
Murray State University political scientist James Clinger thinks the issue hasn’t drawn much attention in Kentucky because the state’s population isn’t significantly changing.
“If the state were dramatically gaining population or rapidly losing population, the issue would be more salient,” he said. “As it is, it would be harder to justify dramatic re-drawing of constituency boundaries. There may be some changes, but I doubt they will amount to much.”
In any event, few people know more about the recent history of Bluegrass State redistricting than longtime Louisville Courier-Journal political columnist Al Cross. He still chips in musings to the C-J though he left the paper to head the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
When the Democrats had the governorship and both chambers of the General Assembly, “they still allowed Republicans in the legislature to draw most of their own district lines; the few conflicts caused by population shifts usually were resolved in favor of Democrats, but they didn’t always hold on to those seats,” Cross said.
He added, “In 2002 and 2012, when Republicans controlled the Senate, they used redistricting to consolidate their Senate majority while House Democrats did much the same as they had before. Many bipartisan pairs traded precincts to their advantage; in one trade, [First District Republican Rep.] Steve Rudy picked up the precinct where he now lives, and Gerald Watkins [who represented the Third District] got some territory that was more favorable to him.”
Traditionally, the legislature has drawn congressional district lines after consulting with incumbents, said Cross.
The governor has the power to veto redistricting plans for Congress or the state legislature. But in the last two redistricting years, the governors—Paul Patton and Steve Beshear—were Democrats and hence the veto wasn’t a factor, according to Cross.
“Looking to the next round of redistricting, things are different. The only way Democrats are likely to have any influence over the process is if they have a governor who can veto a redistricting plan.
“But since vetoes can be overridden by a constitutional majority in both chambers, a veto would be unlikely to be sustained unless the plan were egregiously partisan, and a popular governor could make political hay with it.”
Redistricting in the courts
Though redistricting remains largely the purview of state lawmakers, gerrymandering can be challenged in state or federal courts.
Last January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court tossed out the Republican-led legislature’s congressional map as “clearly, plainly, and palpably” an unconstitutional gerrymander. The legislature had to draw a new map, which the Republicans challenged and the U.S. Supreme Court and federal judges let stand in March.
But in June, the Supreme Court allowed to stand most of a controversial Republican map in Texas and sustained all of a GOP North Carolina plan that also had been challenged.
Shortly before, the high court had declined to rule on alleged gerrymandering in Wisconsin and Maryland. The elevation of conservative Brett Kavanaugh to the high court might make challenges to dubious GOP redistricting less likely to succeed.
Americans don’t like gerrymandering, want independent redistricting
Nonetheless, redistricting “remains largely in the hands of politicians, which means it is often an exercise of raw political power,” Balz wrote. “But a third factor is at work that in the long run could have a sizable impact on the goal of producing fairer and more competitive district lines. That is the movement to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians and give it to citizens or other independent bodies.”
Balz pointed to polls that show most Americans dislike gerrymandering. “A Pew Research Center study last spring found that 72 percent cited fair and reasonable districts as something they regarded as important. But just 49 percent said they thought that standard was being met at least somewhat well. Not surprisingly, there’s a big partisan split. Republicans were far more likely to say districts are fairly drawn than Democrats, by 63 percent to 39 percent.”
Republicans hold majorities in 32 legislatures. Democrats control 14 statehouses and four are divided. Republicans occupy the governor’s mansion in 33 states to 16 for the Democrats. One governor is an independent.
Balz wrote that a 2013 Bipartisan Policy Center and USA Today survey revealed “that plurality of Americans (35 percent) favor the use of bipartisan commissions to handle redistricting, followed by the state legislature and governor (28 percent). Citizen commissions or other entities that reduce the influence of politicians have proved successful elsewhere, with California being the most populous state to move in that direction.”
Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah will put proposed redistricting commissions to the voters next month. “Earlier this year, Ohio voters approved a new redistricting system aimed at producing a more bipartisan process,” The Post pundit also wrote. “Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures, notes that the number of states — five — with votes on redistricting proposals this year equals the number that took votes between 2010 and 2017.”
No matter if voters approve all the initiatives, a majority of states—including Kentucky—will still rely on their legislatures for redistricting. Nonetheless, according to Balz, “the combination of ballot initiatives and contested elections are likely to make the next round of redistricting more balanced than the last.”