Why State-Level Online Politics Really Matters in 2010

Also published on techPresident and K Street Cafe

Plenty of people are already looking ahead to the outcome of the 2010 elections, in particular what happens to the Democrats’ control of Congress. The party of an incumbent President almost always loses seats in Washington in an off-year election, and with the Dems having just enough votes to stop a filibuster in the Senate, Republicans have a powerful incentive to stall Barack Obama’s agenda as long as possible: they know full well that these few months are likely the high point of his influence in his (presumably) first term.

But if you really want to see a shift in power in Washington for the next decade or longer, pay attention to who wins the STATE legislatures next November. The state representatives and state senators elected 15 months from now will preside over the rawest political act in America: the redrawing of congressional and legislative district lines based on the results of the decennial census. Redistricting is legislative sausage-making at its finest, with members jockeying to preserve or extend their own power-bases at the expense of enemies. In the process, they usually try to forward the overall interests of their particular party or faction as best they can.

The results can be ludicrous at times (at least one member of Congress is reputed to hold her seat because her colleagues in the state senate so despised her that they happily tailored a Congressional district to her needs), but they can also be flat-out obscene. Redistricting in the early 1990s was bad enough, with certain Democratic urban legislators teaming up with suburban Republicans to sketch sprawling monsters linking scattered pockets of (presumably) like-minded voters, in the process often creating a slew of safe Republican districts enveloping a handful of others packed to the gills with minority and other reliably Democratic voters.

Those early efforts were the first to benefit from database modeling of proposed districts down to block level, and even though new plans often took hours or even days to run through the mainframe, the practical political results were impressive at the time. But compared with what Tom DeLay achieved in Texas in 2003, they were strictly amateur. Pushing the new Republican leadership of the Texas Legislature to RE-redistrict for the 2004 elections (even though they were only in power because of lines newly drawn in 2001), he managed to eliminate enough incumbent Democrats in Congress to shift the state’s delegation in Washington from rough parity to a 21-11 Republican advantage. By contrast, Texas voters split about 55-45 Republican overall in 2004 –hooray for democracy!

If I sound cynical about the redistricting process, I have a right: my first substantive political experience was working for a member of the Texas House of Representatives during a special session devoted to redrawing those precious political lines in 1992, during which at one point I quite literally walked into a smoke-filled room. Right out of college and drenched (not wet) behind the ears, I glimpsed a world I didn’t really understand — but watching the rubber meet the road of politics was a most enlightening experience all around.

Redistricting can be ugly regardless of which party is in charge, but it’s also going to happen, regardless of which party is in charge. So if you really want to influence the political course of this country over the next decade (at least), you have the chance — if you work to elect state legislators whose views align with yours, and if you get started NOW.

For starters, individual donors, volunteers and voices can often have a much larger effect on a local race like one for state representative than they can on a state-level or national election. Legislative races may be more expensive than they were 20 years ago, but they still run on a much smaller scale and usually with much less money to spend on television. Consequently, individual donations matter more, as do individual endorsements and individual volunteer hours. So does direct voter-to-voter outreach — with fewer messages filling the airwaves, the contents of an email from a friend may be the only thing someone remembers when he or she goes to vote.

But WHEN you help matters as much as HOW you help, since time and money spent early in the campaign process usually pay off disproportionately — donating 10 hours a week NOW will probably help a candidate much more than donating 10 hours during the week right before the election. Plus, the primary elections are all-important across much of the country, again in part because of gerrymandering, and they’ll start up next Spring. So get cracking! If you want to see a particular brand of congressmember populate Washington, now’s your chance — provided that you’re willing to put in the time and/or the money.

Let’s explore the implications of this idea for online politics a little further, in a couple of upcoming articles.


Written by
Colin Delany
View all articles
  • The 21-11 advantage for GOP cannot be attributed so simply to Tom DeLay or the redistricting process.

    Some of the rural Dems lost (Stenhom) when running for re-election, while others won (Edwards). It was the voters of each district that made their choice.

    You also have to consider the federal courts intervening for protection of minority voting rights. These rulings have mandated some districts that are packed with 70% or more minorities. Sheila Jackson-Lee in Houston and Eddie Bernice Johnson in Dallas are examples. This consolidates many solid Dems into a few inner-city districts.

  • Hey Chuck, thanks for the comment and you make some good points. But the nice thing is that in this case we get to hold as close to a controlled experiment as we can in politics, by comparing the 2002 and 2004 results in Texas.

    In 2002, the Rs kicked the Dems out of control of Congress, knocked off the Senate Majority Leader for the first time in a bazillion years, and even defeated a guy (Max Cleland) who lost three limbs in Vietnam, in part by smearing him as somehow un-American (I ain’t forgetting that one anytime soon). But in Texas, the Congressional delegation ended up split, w/a one-seat R advantage, in part because most of the TX Dem congressmembers were entrenched incumbents and hard to beat.

    In 2004, the Rs managed a narrow victory around the country, with Bush winning the popular vote and electoral college but with the Rs essentially keeping the same number of seats in the House. The Texas results? Roughly the same breakdown of overall votes (roughly 55-45 R advantage), but a 21-11 R advantage in in the state’s Congressional delegation. Same electorate, roughly the same overall voting pattern, in a LESS conservative year overall, but a massively different outcome in the Congressional election results. The variable? Redistricting — pure and simple, since nothing else changed! (You can blame Dems for running bad campaigns, but that’s nothing new in Texas — Dems have been running crappy campaigns for decades now…). This is why political professionals pay attention to redistricting — it really, really matters.

    As for the court cases, you’re right that courts drove the increase in minority representation, and if I remember right, we were in special session in TX in 1992 b/c an earlier redistricting plan had been thrown out by the courts. But there’s a difference between creating districts that give minority voters an equal voice in the process and creating districts that pack them all together, surrounding them with other districts that have just enough (presumably) Republican voters to make them a reasonably safe R seat. THAT’S the politics — and at least one of those Texas Congressmembers you mention quite happily acquiesced in the process so that she could get her OWN safe seat. Cynical political motives masked in the language of civil rights — you gotta love politics…