Heading into the November election, Texas Democrats sounded more bullish than they had in decades, and it wasn’t because of Joe Biden. A burgeoning partisan realignment in the state’s sprawling suburbs over the last four years had brought them to the brink of flipping the state House of Representatives. Such a breakthrough would halt 18 years of unchecked conservative control over the nation’s largest red state and give their party a seat at the table when new legislative maps are drawn after the census—a process that has crushed their spirits and disempowered their base for most of the last two decades. Candidates leaned into this message, framing the election as not just about the next two years, but about the next 10.
“The only check you have on the Republican power in Texas is to take a chamber, especially at the moment of redistricting,” Ann Johnson, a Democrat running for a statehouse seat in suburban Houston, told me a few weeks before the election. “If you want to give them the pen for another decade, they’ll carve them up just the same.”
All Democrats had to do was flip nine of the nearly two dozen seats they were contesting. Instead, they picked up just one—Johnson’s district, which Democrat Beto O’Rourke had carried by 21 points during his Senate race two years earlier, and where the incumbent was a pro-choice Republican who had long been endorsed by Planned Parenthood. The party’s target list was ambitious and its fundraising numbers were jaw-dropping, but the result for Texas Democrats was the same as nearly every other election this millennium: disappointment.
At least they have company.
In closely watched and expensive races across the country, Democrats came up short in their bid to take over Republican-held legislative chambers—even in states where Biden did well. They had their eyes on legislatures in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, and North Carolina. Iowa was in play. So, with some luck, were statehouses in Florida and Georgia. But Democrats failed to flip a single legislative chamber and even lost both houses in blue New Hampshire. Viewing such races as critical not just to enacting progressive policy but to consolidating power ahead of redistricting, the super-PAC Forward Majority and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), the national party’s organization for statehouses, committed a combined $82 million to the effort. Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee pumped in millions more. But Republicans nabbed close to 80 seats nationwide. The results, gloated one Republican operative, were “absolutely embarrassing.”
Even as they celebrated President Donald Trump’s defeat, some Democrats felt as if they were going back to the future. Ten years ago a well-timed red wave handed Republicans control of the redistricting process in key battleground states. Aided by a flood of last-minute spending, they flipped 22 state legislative chambers, gained nearly 700 seats, and used that power to inflate their strength in Washington, DC, and in state capitals for the next decade. With scientific precision, conservative lawyers crunched and manipulated data to construct a durable Republican wall that made it nearly impossible for Democrats to take back power even when they won more votes statewide by considerable margins. Those maps, and the legislative majorities they protected, cemented minority rule and turned competitive states into conservative policy labs where progressive ideas—Medicaid expansion, climate action, voting rights—went to die. Democrats still held the White House—but that was where their influence ended.
Christina Polizzi, a spokesperson for the DLCC, rejects such comparisons. “This is not another 2010,” she told me. “We forced Republicans to go on defense on maps that they drew. And at the end of the day, they really just maintained their status quo.” While Democrats failed to flip any legislatures, Polizzi argued, they consolidated many of their recent gains, maintaining control of the legislature in Nevada and protecting some vulnerable incumbents elected in 2018—no easy feat with Trump juicing record-setting Republican turnout.
And it’s true that in some parts of the country, Democrats will face a less-hostile landscape than the one they encountered a decade ago. Some of the most brazen examples of gerrymandering after the 2010 census were in Great Lakes states that Obama won twice but where huge losses up and down the ticket that year gave Republicans control of the process. The result: In 2012, Obama won Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, while Democrats won only 17 out of a possible 56 congressional seats in those states.
Now, Democrats control governors’ mansions in three of those states heading into redistricting; Michigan established a bipartisan redistricting commission; and Ohio approved constitutional amendments to make that state’s process fairer. “They won’t be able to draw a 12–4 map on the congressional level,” says the NDRC’s Patrick Rodenbush, referring to Ohio’s current Republican-dominated delegation.
While they may tread water in the Midwest, Democrats could be totally swamped in the Sun Belt, where Republicans have a chance to replicate their efforts of a decade ago with even more at stake and fewer restraints. “I would say that the South is this decade’s redistricting hot spot,” says Michael Li, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. Texas, North Carolina, and Florida are all likely to add House seats after the census, and each has a long track record of gerrymandering along partisan or racial lines. So does Georgia, another state where Democrats were stymied down ballot this year.
As Li notes, this will be the first 10-year cycle in which Republican mapmakers won’t be bound by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required certain states to obtain “pre-clearance” from the Department of Justice to ensure they didn’t discriminate. The Supreme Court struck down part of the act in 2013, enabling a shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach to gerrymandering, and Republicans quickly took advantage. Georgia, for instance, redrew its maps mid-decade, protecting two white incumbents in the Atlanta suburbs. Now, as Democrats have made up even more ground in the state, Republicans’ control over the process could allow them to triage their recent losses by, for example, forcing two recently elected Democratic congresswomen to fight for the same seat. In North Carolina, where the Democratic governor has no role in redistricting, Republican maps that aggressively diminished Black voting power were finally struck down by a state court in 2019, and only then after the daughter of the now-dead Republican operative who designed them revealed the existence of his racist planning documents—a scenario that’s unlikely to repeat itself.
Texas remains the grand prize for Republicans. Because an independent commission draws California’s maps, Texas represents the biggest gerrymandering haul, and historically, it’s been one in which Democrats are most brazenly shafted. Under the current congressional map, fast-growing liberal Austin is represented by six members of Congress, only two of whom actually live in the city—and only one of whom is a Democrat. A map that gave Democrats a number of districts proportionate to their vote share in recent national elections would net them about five more House seats than they hold now. That’s the kind of margin that can make or break a majority.
Republicans, meanwhile, have used the process to cement white voting power and dilute the political clout of voters of color; as Li points out, much of the state’s population gains over the last two decades have come from Latino and Asian American residents, but the state has added no new House districts that reflect those trends.
And that brings us to the other wild card about this redistricting cycle, which stands to hurt Democrats in several ways: the census. Because the process was delayed by the pandemic, states might not receive their data until next summer. A governor could, without federal pre-clearance, schedule the process so that a constitutionally dubious map drops just before the filing deadline for candidates to run in the new districts. The state could then stave off legal challenges by arguing that it was too late to change the maps.
Then there’s the census data itself, which Trump’s Commerce Department manipulated in an attempt to undercount people of color. The administration sought to add a citizenship question, which would have both discouraged participation in some communities and opened the door for Republicans to draw districts based on citizenship rather than total population. The question was removed—thanks to that same batch of North Carolina files—but the census was hampered by the pandemic, and the Trump administration abruptly stopped the count in mid-October, feeding concerns of an undercount. Already, there are signs Republicans will attempt to use those results to tighten their grip even further. In Missouri, voters narrowly passed a ballot amendment that could lead the state to exclude noncitizens from its population count when drawing new districts, paving the way for similar actions in other states.
The problem of representation in state legislatures goes beyond the nuts and bolts of gerrymandering. It’s a more existential one: Democrats believe the way to grow power is to wield it—to provide popular accomplishments that will substantively improve voters’ lives and build an enduring coalition of support. Medicare and the New Deal in the past. The Green New Deal and Medicare for All, perhaps, in the future. But right now, they’re stuck in a loop: To acquire more power, they need seats, and to acquire more seats, they need power.
In the years since the tea party wave, the 2010 election has become a rallying cry on the left. During his run for Democratic National Committee chair in 2017, Keith Ellison often rattled off the number of down-ballot seats Democrats lost in the Obama years in his speeches. So did Pete Buttigieg before his run for president. Unless the party reverses those numbers, “it’s not going to matter who the president is,” Buttigieg told voters.
It might not be 2010 all over again. But that’s because 2010 never really ended.