Pennsylvania is a “purple” state with a roughly even mix of blue Democratic voters and red Republicans. Yet for the past eight years, Republicans have sent 13 members to the U.S. House of Representatives to the Democrats five.
This stark imbalance is not a coincidence, but a result of “gerrymandering,” the practice of party drawing irregular voting district lines to boost their numbers in Congress. Pennsylvania’s seventh district, which is the New York Times said resembled a moose head, was a prime example of how precisely partisan gerrymandering has become.
Pennsylvania’s era of moose-and-antler is over, for now, after the state’s Supreme Court ruled in January that the congressional map unfairly favored Republicans. The court implemented its own map on February 5, with more neutral district lines, giving Democrats a chance to win House seats that were previously all but predetermined for the GOP.
But with more competitive elections, Pennsylvania voters should also expect what heavily gerrymandered districts are largely insulated from: more campaign spending. The massive sums of contributions that have come to define U.S. politics typically stay away from the lop-sided contests that gerrymandering produces.
“It’s much more difficult for candidates in uphill or hopeless races to secure funding and the kind of committed support necessary to win elections,” said Brian Remingler of Princeton Election Consortium, a university group that studies gerrymandered districts.
The correlation between competitiveness and campaign spending was evident in 2016. Nine out of the ten most expensive House races for that year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, were also designated as “toss-ups” or as narrow victories by the New York Times.
This included Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania’s eighth district, one of two competitive House races in the state, was also the third most expensive House race in 2016. It garnered over $22 million even though the Republican handily won with 54 percent of the vote.
In contrast, Pennsylvania’s 10th district went Republican by more than 70 percent of the vote in 2016. Yet less than $600,000 was spent by both parties.
Remingler projects Democrats could win as many as 11 out of 18 districts in the 2018 midterm election this November under the new congressional map. The anticipated wave election of course has much to do with Donald J. Trump being president, who currently has a 54 disapproval rating, the highest of recent presidents during the same time in office (Five Thirty Eight).
The question is how far anti-Trump sentiment will carry Democratic candidates without the soft push of large political contributions, which most of the American public see as having an undesirable influence over elected officials. (LINK). Based on the experience of previous midterms, competitive races struggle to stay afloat without the help of wealthy financiers.
House candidates interested in relying on small donations in 2014 needed to raise $1,800 a day for an entire two-year term in order to survive in a competitive race, according to a study from Demos, a left-leaning think tank.
In reality, competitive congressional races in the 2014 midterms were overwhelmingly funded by donations of $200 or more, which Demos considers “large donors.” Only two candidates, out of 50, were able to compete with a treasury of less than 70 percent of these large donors (DEMOS). This doesn’t factor “outside spending” from superPACs, the entities that can contribute unlimited sums of money to campaign-related advertisements. SuperPACs also tend to gravitate towards competitive races, according to 2016 data from the Campaign Finance Institute.
Gerrymandering makes elections cheaper
While gerrymandering does not eliminate the concept of a competitive race, it does greatly minimize them. GOP strategist pointed out the financial benefits of partisan redistricting in a 2010 Wall Street op-ed. Rove saw the cost-saving potential of controlling redistricting instead of bankrolling tight House elections in every district.
“Moving, say, 20 districts from competitive to out-of-reach could save a party $100 million or more over the course of a decade,” wrote Rove months before the 2010 midterms.
The initiative that Rove was referring to was known as the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP for short. A program funded by the Republican Senate Leadership Committee.
David Daley, co-founder of Fair Vote and a fierce critic of partisan redistricting, says that Republican strategists convinced their donors that winning these state legislature seats could avoid funding “very expensive battles every two years.”
Unlike parliamentary democracies like the UK, voting districts in the U.S. are established by elected officials in state legislatures. California and Arizona are the two exceptions, which have independent commissions in place to avoid partisan gerrymandering. Otherwise, whoever controls the state legislature, has the power to redistrict once the U.S. census is conducted every ten years.
When the last census was conducted in 2010, Republican donors through REDMAP invested over $30 million state legislator seats in swing states like Pennsylvania (REDMAP). The investment paid off. Daley says that Republicans won 107 state legislative seats in 16 states, giving them unilateral control to draw 193 of the 435 U.S. House seats.
“You think about that for a moment. It’s pretty amazing number that a handful of these local races would have that kind of national power.” Daley told WikiTribune, author of Ratf***ed: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, a book dedicated to the science of gerrymandering.
Pennsylvania alone saw roughly $1 million in total spending on state legislature seats. While a million dollars is insignificant by federal standards, these sums of money are far more influential in these smaller “down ballot races” where name-recognition of candidates is lower (Guardian).
Much of the contributions funded political advertisements, many negative in tone. Daily points to David Levandsky, former state Representative of the 39th district, as a poster-child for local politicians caught in the partisan crosshairs during a census years.
An ad campaign, funded by the RSLC, falsely linked Rep. Levandsky, a 25 year Democratic incumbent, to a $600,000 library dedicated to controversial former U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (WHYY). Levandsky lost his seat to his Republican opponent.
“It’s not a good thing for democracy to have all of that money and negative campaigning seep all the way into our local races” Daley told WikiTribune, author of Ratf***ed: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, a book dedicated to the science of gerrymandering.
A perhaps unintended consequence of the focus on state legislatures is the counter-play made by Democrats on the state’s judicial system. In Pennsylvania, many state judges are elected officials. This includes the state’s supreme court that overturned the gerrymandered map. So when three state supreme court seats were vacant in 2015, Democrats invested in Democratic candidates.
Over $21 million was spent on Pennsylvania’s state supreme court race in 2015, a record-breaking number for elections of its kind in U.S. history.(TIME). Democrats won all three open supreme court seats, which stand for ten years, and hold 5-2 majority on the bench, including the decision to overturn the court-drawn congressional map.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Suzanna Almeida, Executive Director of League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, an anti-gerrymandering organization, “we think [the supreme court decision] is based on the law and the facts, but we also want our judges to be appointed through a process that focuses on qualifications rather than their qualities as a campaigner.”
Gerrymandering not over
The new, and more neutral, congressional map will likely stand for the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Republican lawsuit that opposes the current court-drawn version (Slate).
But partisan redistricting is only temporarily suspended in Pennsylvania. The state legislature resumes the ability to carve district lines for partisan gain in 2020, the next census year.
Local organizations like League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania are pushing for legislation that strips the state legislature redistricting power before the expected flood of national dollars arrive for 2020. Almeida sees independent commissions, similar to California’s model, as the “gold standard” to the national fight over these local offices.
Two bills in the state government propose independent redistricting commissions. But in a congress notorious for gerrymandering, neither bill has received a floor vote. Almeida told WikiTribune that “connecting the dots” between redistricting and national political issues is how reform can come to fruition.
“When folks are worried about taxes, guns in school or being paid a living wage, connecting those issues to the redistricting can be complicated…. but I think people are starting to understand why it’s important.”