How the Minority Wins

An election marked by gerrymandering, allegations of voter suppression, and legislative power grabs highlights the electoral reality of the GOP.

The Wisconsin capitol in Madison, where the lame-duck Republican legislature is attempting to reduce the power of the incoming Democratic governor (Scott Bauer / Associated Press)

There’s no greater evidence of the passage of time than the Republican Party’s autopsy report on its failed 2012 election cycle. “By the year 2050 we’ll be a majority-minority country and in both 2008 and 2012 President Obama won a combined 80 percent of the votes of all minority groups,” former Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus said at a 2013 press conference announcing the report.

The document itself essentially admits both to the fact that the Republican Party was a party of white men, and that the only way to compete would be to neutralize the “demographic destiny” of Democrats, embracing immigration reform and becoming a true multiracial and multiethnic “big tent.” It’s a strikingly candid report. It reads like speculative fiction today.

But around the same time, darker clouds appeared on the horizon. The RealClearPolitics analyst Sean Trende wrote an influential series on “missing white voters” rebutting the demographic arguments of the GOP report, saying that Republicans could still build a reliable coalition solely by picking up more “downscale white voters,” and reversing its movement toward immigration reform.

In 2014, while Republicans deliberated internally over whether to allow an immigration-reform package through the House, a group of pollsters—including the current White House adviser Kellyanne Conway—released findings indicating that an anti-immigration message could serve as a GOP base-builder. These findings became the underpinnings of the strategy that brought President Donald Trump to the White House, while also cementing the GOP as a white man’s party—the party of the minority.

That strategy is newly relevant now, as the Republican Party looks to complete lame-duck-session power grabs in state legislatures in Wisconsin and Michigan, preemptively stripping power away from incoming Democratic governors. Those moves are characterized by Democrats as brazen and unprecedented “coups” by a party that was soundly beaten in the midterms but, through anti-democratic means, has managed to exert undue power.

But those midwestern power grabs are not necessarily shocking or unpredictable. Rather, they are an extension of the underlying strategy that had already been the major organizing principle of the GOP even as Priebus wrote his report. For decades, the Republican Party prepared to keep power even as it represented a coalition that became the minority. Now, the plan is in full effect.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when this became the destiny of the Republican Party. One could go all the way back to when the 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater broke the Democratic stranglehold on the Jim Crow South, picking up Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas on an anti-civil-rights agenda, initiating the proto “southern strategy” and sparking a realignment of white conservatism with the GOP. Or the story could start just a year later, when the Voting Rights Act ushered in the first era of anything resembling true democracy in the country’s history, and also set in motion an anti-voting-rights insurgency in the South.

Closer still, the gerrymandering and geographic polarization that have become so critical to modern Republican plans might not have been possible without the “white flight” in the 1960s and ’70s associated with that conservatism, and with the nascence of white suburban evangelicals as a political force under Ronald Reagan. The deep partisan differences creating unbridgeable policy divides in swing states might not have been so deep without the scorched-earth politics of the 1990s, and the power of technocratic tinkering at the margins of elections and voting rights might not have been so apparent without the infamous presidential election in Florida in 2000.

Even nearer to the modern moment, perhaps Wisconsin and Michigan are the end results of a chain of events that only became inevitable with the dawn of technologically sophisticated GOP redistricting campaigns in 2000 and 2010, with the reality-warping corporate bonanza of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, or with 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, which defanged federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

Any one of these moments could be a viable starting point for assessing just what happened in the 2018 election, when Republicans lost the popular-vote margins at just about every level of politics, but still managed to limit Democratic power in some meaningful ways. There’s Wisconsin, where—relying on surging turnout across the board, and a spike in black and Latino voters—the Democratic challenger Tony Evers defeated the GOP incumbent Scott Walker to claim the governor’s mansion. Republican state legislators moved quickly to handcuff Evers’s office.

After the Republican Robin Vos, the speaker of the Wisconsin Statehouse, said that “if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority,” the legislature moved to limit the governor’s power to administer the government or be involved in lawsuits without legislative approval. Evers is reportedly not confident that direct pressure on Walker will convince the outgoing governor to veto the lame-duck bills, although Democrats in the state have threatened litigation of their own.

As my colleague Russell Berman reports, Michigan is on a similar path as Wisconsin. “The Michigan GOP proposals did not go as far and were not moving quite as fast as those in Wisconsin,” Berman writes, “but they would similarly shift power to intervene in litigation from the governor’s and attorney general’s offices to the legislature, where Republicans maintain a majority.”

Both of these legislative power plays appear to take inspiration from North Carolina, where in 2016 the state legislature moved to sharply curtail the governor’s power to make appointments and exert control over elections law after the Democratic candidate, Roy Cooper, won the election.

That Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina have even reached this point is a reflection on their status as true battleground states, where nothing short of a war over the very shape of American democracy has been waged for the last two decades. All three have been critical states in field-testing tactics that can preserve Republican advantages, even as their tent grows smaller and smaller.

Perhaps chief among those strategies has been political redistricting, and Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan have been bound to one another over the past few years by an intense national battle over racial and political gerrymandering. With the help of the GOP’s REDMAP project in 2010, a wave election for Republicans was converted into unprecedented control over the decennial redistricting process.

The maps drawn by Republican majorities in politically competitive states preserved clear advantages for the GOP, often through mechanisms that federal courts found purposefully diluted the votes of people of color and thus violated the Voting Rights Act. Courts were active in striking down those racial gerrymanders in state legislative and congressional maps. But when it came to parties pursuing naked advantages by targeting voters by their parties instead, the Supreme Court demurred on so-called partisan gerrymanders in North Carolina and Wisconsin, although the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did block a partisan gerrymander from Republicans there.

In Michigan, where a ballot initiative that would replace the current partisan redistricting process with an independent commission passed with 61 percent of the votes in November, a new federal lawsuit alleging that Republicans created a “durable partisan gerrymander” for several elections will proceed to trial soon.

The results of such gerrymanders appear undeniable. In Pennsylvania, Michigan, and North Carolina, Democrats won 54, 53, and 51 percent of the overall votes for state houses of representatives, respectively, but only picked up 45, 47, and 45 percent of the seats. In Wisconsin, the situation is perhaps even more extreme. Evers won by 1 percent of the popular vote, but only won in 36 of the state’s 99 legislative assembly districts. Assuming that a preference for Evers roughly correlates with a Democratic voter, it means that the shape of the assembly districts confers at least a 20-seat majority to Republicans in the legislature alone. Republicans won a 27-seat majority this fall.

Gerrymandering is not the only thing at work here. Those who downplay the importance of gerrymandering point to the “big sort” hypothesis promoted by the journalist Bill Bishop in his eponymous 2008 book. As that theory goes, increased spatial “self-sorting” over time between liberal and conservative voters has created widening geographic boundaries between Republicans and Democrats, boundaries that necessitate gerrymanders and lock most of the Democratic voting strength in a few districts in every state.

But it’s possible that much of what is believed to be self-sorting could be a mirage, and could be shaped by discrimination and housing segregation. As Richard Rothstein, the author of The Color of Law, told Slate in 2017: “Racial polarization partly contributed to Donald Trump’s victory and it is attributable to residential segregation.” That is to say: In the end, it comes back to race.

That’s a key point when considering what it takes to build a party that is now de facto based on a single racial identity. With the hopes of a robust interracial coalition all but abandoned, ensuring political advantage must necessarily entail securing racial advantages, too. That means benefiting from voter suppression, and implementing voter-ID policies and other voting laws that “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” as a federal judge once said about North Carolina’s voter-ID law. It means chasing the specter of “voter fraud,” and embracing a national strategy that in just about every case decreases the size of the electorate.

The Constitution and the Founding Fathers intended for anti-democratic institutions to counterbalance the will of the majority—with the subtext being that those anti-democratic institutions also protected racial dominion and the rights of slaveholders. Winning with a narrowing voter base of white conservatives means embracing and expanding those institutions, and often to the same effect.

It’s unclear how viable this iteration of the GOP grand strategy is. The “blue wave” of 2018 also served as a reminder of the contemporary popular wisdom that high-turnout elections favor Democrats, and provided evidence of significant mobilizations of low-turnout populations in some states. There’s even evidence that the drumbeat of allegations of voter suppression and ballot discrepancies in places like Georgia can motivate voters of color to turn out at higher rates. In all, it would seem there’s something of a hard limit to how small and homogenous of a voting base the GOP can put together and still hope to hold the islands of power at key positions in swing states that have held up its policy-making dominance for the past two decades.

But, as Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina show, power is not easily conceded, and the stakes aren’t likely to get lower in the future. If the Republican Party is in a long retreat—and that’s far from certain—the withdrawal will likely be scorched-earth.