Political analyst Charlie Cook, writing in National Journal, muses about gerrymandering and the Republicans’ difficulty in breaking out of their demographic cul de sac in a way that I hadn’t thought of before.
As Cook notes, the GOP got 48 percent of the House vote in 2012 yet still won 54 percent of House seats, indicating that gerrymandering did produce benefits for the party. But ….
But could the Republicans’ arguably rigged House majority actually be a curse disguised as a blessing? It’s an interesting question. They clearly did everything they could to purge Democratic voters from their districts ahead of 2012, no matter whether those voters were white, black, Hispanic, left-handed, or right-minded—just as Democrats would have done had the roles been reversed. But in the process of quarantining Democrats, Republicans effectively purged millions of minority voters from their own districts, and that should raise a warning flag. By drawing themselves into safe, lily-white strongholds, have Republicans inadvertently boxed themselves into an alternate universe that bears little resemblance to the rest of the country?
When I read that paragraph, my mind jumped immediately to this photo compilation of Georgia’s GOP Senate caucus that I ran last month:
(Since then, yet another white male has been added to that caucus in a special election.)
As Cook points out, the degree of gerrymandering that produces outcomes like that pictured above means that even if Republicans wanted to reach out to minority voters, they can’t. They have few if any such minorities in their districts. By making their districts whiter and whiter, they have essentially trapped themselves.
As Cook notes:
“For example, using only 2010 census data, Rep. Daniel Webster’s Central Florida district jumped from 57 percent white to 66 percent white; Rep. Pete Sessions’s Dallas-area district leaped from 42 percent to 53 percent white; and Rep. Pat Tiberi’s Central Ohio district soared from 68 percent to 88 percent white. All three Republicans had relatively close races in the last decade but won easily in 2012.”
So imagine yourself as a Republican exploring whether to moderate your position on immigration. As part of the political calculation, you understand that you might lose some votes on the right, but you would hope to pick up some votes among Hispanics. However, if you have no Hispanic Americans in your district, that option is foreclosed. You make yourselves more vulnerable on the right, with little chance of being rewarded for it elsewhere.
A great case in point would be Mike Coffman, a Republican congressman from Colorado. Two years ago, Coffman bitterly opposed the DREAM Act, calling it a “nightmare,” and championed the use of English-only ballots. His district, with only 8 percent of its population Hispanic, had previously elected immigration extremist Tom Tancredo.
However, redistricting has changed that suburban Denver district. Coffman now represents a district that is 20 percent Hispanic, and suddenly, he not only supports the DREAM Act, he supports a path to legal status as well. He may even be open to allowing a path to citizenship.
“My district dramatically changed,” the congressman told POLITICO. “In the district I had until last month, there wasn’t a significant Hispanic population, and with the population I had, immigration wasn’t a significant issue. In the district I have now, there is a significant Hispanic population. And meeting with those people really put a face on it.”
I’ll leave it to the voters of Coffman’s district to decide the sincerity of his conversion. But in his district as previously drawn, it is unlikely that he could have made that transformation even if he wanted to do so. Like his party, he was trapped in a political version of a gated community, a sanctuary that also serves as a cell.
– Jay Bookman