Midterms: Races for governor, statehouses will help decide control of Congress for a decade

Protesters rally outside the Supreme Court as justices hear arguments in a Maryland gerrymandering case March 28.

Politicians often claim that whatever election is coming up is the most important in our lifetime, and the 2018 campaign has been no different.

But this time, it's not just campaign hyperbole. Races on the ballot this year – often far down the ballot – could define the national political landscape for the next decade or more.

That's because governors and state lawmakers elected in 2018 and 2020 will redo the congressional maps in 2021 – the single greatest factor in determining who will control Congress in the decade to come.

The tea party revolution of 2010 ushered Republicans into control of statehouses across the country, allowing the GOP to draw much of the current map – and to control the U.S. House for most of the last decade.

This year's election could determine whether Republicans maintain their advantage in congressional races through 2031, or if Democrats can tip the scales in their own favor.

"Democrats have been in the wilderness the past decade because they fell asleep on redistricting in 2010," said David Daley, a senior fellow at Fair Vote and author of a book about the last redistricting.

That means they'll have to start even earlier this time around.

"The key elections having influence on that process are almost entirely this year," Daley said. "In many ways, it’s going to be over after Election Day 2018."

Enter Eric Holder.

The former Obama attorney general heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a one-stop shop for Democratic groups to coordinate their strategy. 

Its mission: Win a more favorable playing field for Democrats by ensuring a complete count in the 2020 Census, removing barriers to voting, supporting ballot initiatives for redistricting reform, electing Democrats and challenging Republican-drawn districts in court.

He sees all of these as related issues: "You see the greatest amount of voter suppression where you have the most gerrymandered states."

There's no comparable group on the Republican side. The National Republican Redistricting Trust is focused more narrowly on giving state Republican parties technical and legal support. 

"People have characterized the NRRT as a response to Eric Holder's group, which it is not," said Adam Kincaid, the group's director. "The reason is because we don’t do elections. We're focused specifically on litigation and data."

He says other GOP committees – the Republican Governor's Association and the Republican State Leadership Committee – worry about candidates.

Where Holder sees redistricting as fundamentally broken and in need of reform, Kincaid sees no easy fix.

"The process is dirty as it is," he said. "And I don’t mean that in a negative way. It's just messy.

"There's not a perfect process – which is what the founders acknowledged when they designed it this way."

The 2018 battle for control over the next redistricting is being fought on at least four fronts:

Governors' mansions

Democrat Richard Cordray, left, and Republican Mike DeWine are running for Ohio governor.

States use different methods of drawing congressional districts. Thirty-four put the state legislature in charge. In 32 of those states, the governor has veto power.

Thirty-six states will elect governors this year. Most of them will serve four-year terms, so they'll still be in office three years from now, when the maps are to be redrawn.

Not all states give their governors a role in the process. And some low-population states have only one congressional seat, so they don't do redistricting.

But that still leaves 20 states in which the governor elected this year will have significant influence over congressional map drawing. And they happen to include some of the most gerrymandered states in the union: Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Those five swing states go either way in presidential elections: Obama won them all in 2008, and Trump won them in 2016. But in the House of Representatives, Republicans have been able to hold a 27-seat advantage in those five states for a solid decade.

In states with one-party control of the state legislature, a governor of the opposite party can use his or her veto to force a compromise map. That can also be important for Republicans in blue states: Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts all have Democratic legislatures with incumbent Republican governors running for re-election this year. 

But for Democrats trying to compete in states that have been dominated by the GOP, that's a key part of the strategy.

"We need to ensure that Democrats are at least at the table in a way that we were not in 2011," Holder says.

But Republicans say divided government more often leads to gridlock than compromise.

"They’re not looking at a seat at the table," Kincaid said. "They’re looking at getting governors so they can kick these maps to the court. They want a court-drawn map."

State courtrooms

The seven justices of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

With the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the U.S. Supreme Court – already reluctant to weigh into partisan gerrymandering cases – could be still more hostile to redistricting challenges.

But there could be another path: state courts.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in January struck down a Republican-drawn map. The court cited a provision in the state constitution that requires elections to be "free and equal."

At least 25 other state constitutions require elections to be "free and equal" or "free and open," according to Bernard Grofman and Jonathan Cervas, political scientists at the University of California, Irvine.

"So you're likely to see more litigation at the state level," Cervas said. "That had never been the route until Pennsylvania." One exception: Florida, where voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2010 explicitly banning partisan gerrymandering.

So now Holder's group is looking to elect more Democratic judges. He's endorsed Anita Earls, a candidate for the North Carolina Supreme Court

Though judicial canons prevent candidates for judge from discussing specific cases, there's no doubt where the candidates there stand on gerrymandering: Earls represented the NAACP in a challenge to the North Carolina map in 2011. Her opponent, Justice Barbara Jackson, was part of the majority that upheld the maps.

(The U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down the districts in a 9-0 vote.)

Ballot initiatives

Demonstrators rally outside the Michigan Hall of Justice in Lansing, July 18 as the Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments about whether voters should be able to pass a constitutional amendment to change how the state's voting maps are drawn.

Four states – Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah – have redistricting initiatives on the ballot in November.  

They're part of a growing grassroots movement to take redistricting out of the hands of state legislatures – or, at least, to curb their more partisan impulses by requiring a super-majority of lawmakers to agree on any new map.

In Michigan, a proposal on the ballot would put redistricting in the hands of a 13-member commission made up entirely of volunteers whose names would be drawn at random. The only requirements: They must be voters, can't be politicians, lobbyists or their relatives, and have to be balanced by party: Four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents.

Eric Lupher is director of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

"People have really grown a healthy distrust of elected officials, and not just our current elected officials but those who will come in the future," he said.

But he says every state has to decide for itself what kind of redistricting process works best, based on its unique history, political culture and geography.

In May, Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment that requires the approval of 60 percent of each legislative chamber, and a majority of each party, to establish a map. If they can't, the task goes to a bipartisan commission.

In Missouri, a proposal on the ballot Nov. 6 would give map-drawing powers for state legislative districts in the power of a "non-partisan state demographer," subject to approval by a bipartisan commission.

The Utah proposal would have an independent commission propose boundaries to the legislature, and Colorado would give redistricting power to a commission made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Under any of those systems, Lupher says, expect more lawsuits.

"This is something new," he said. "Somebody's ox is going to get gored, and they’re going to sue. That's where we are as a culture these days: If you don’t like it, litigate."

State legislatures

A protester marches outside the Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2017 as the court heard arguments in a Wisconsin gerrymandering case. The court eventually ruled that Wisconsin Democrats didn;t have standing to sure.

In most state legislatures, members of the lower chamber – usually the house of representatives or house of delegates – are elected to two-year terms so there will be another election before redistricting in 2021. But for the upper chamber – the state senate – terms are typically four years.

That gives Democrats a chance to become competitive in some states with big wins down the ballot in 2018.

But because state legislatures often draw lines for their own members as well as for Congress, they're starting those contests at a disadvantage.

"In many cases, you will have elections that will be conducted that were drawn by Republicans in 2011, and that's why turnout is so important," Holder said. "The blue wave has to overcome this gerrymandered seawall that was constructed in 2011."

In Wisconsin – the battleground for a gerrymandering case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court this year – Republicans hold a 18-15 advantage in the Senate after Democrats won two upsets in special elections this year. 

But Jenni Dye, director of the Wisconsin State Senate Democratic Committee, says it's not redistricting that's going to drive voters to the polls.

"The topic that you’re hearing from either side in their television ads is not gerrymandering," she said. "But it is impacting all of the things that are on voters minds – issues like health care, jobs and the economy. Those are all affected by what happens with gerrymandering."