WASHINGTON — With Democrats facing an uphill climb to win back Congress and state legislatures thanks in part to gerrymandering, former Attorney General Eric Holder is leading a new party effort to redraw the lines with President Barack Obama's backing.
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, created last year, has already raised $16 million through a mix of large donors and online appeals. Its goal is to target races and ballot initiatives in 12 states that would give Democrats an opportunity to create more favorable district maps after the 2020 census.
"I expect later this year you will see [Obama] campaigning with a focus on the races that will matter for redistricting," Holder told reporters at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor on Wednesday. "He has identified this as his chief political activity post-presidency."
Obama won his two presidential elections, but the Democratic Party is still suffering from the catastrophic effects of the 2010 Republican wave, which came at the worst possible moment for redistricting efforts. Republicans used newfound majorities in swing states to dominate the electoral mapmaking process that takes place every 10 years after the census, leaving them with a stronghold in Congress and favorable district lines in the state legislatures that will decide the district maps after the 2020 census.
The issue is hardly a morality play: Democrats themselves have a long history of gerrymandering, and their current map in Maryland, drawn with Democratic majorities, includes an especially awkward district that is the subject of a GOP lawsuit the Supreme Court plans to hear. Holder dismissed complaints about Maryland as "focusing on one district" rather than states where several districts were more obviously affected by partisan efforts.
But the scale of Republican victories in 2010 meant that the GOP had much greater influence in far more states, including places like North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia where the right lines can decide several seats. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, which advocates for voting rights, estimates the current Republican majority may include 16 to 17 seats that otherwise would be competitive if not for gerrymandering. Democrats need to win 24 seats in November to regain control of the House.
Holder said the redistricting committee is taking a multipronged approach, targeting state races with influence over the redistricting process but also looking at lawsuits and ballot initiatives that might advance their goals. One goal is to raise the issue's prominence among grass-roots activists in the hopes of firing up turnout.
"In particular, I'll focus on making sure that African-Americans, people of color, understand the long term implications of these elections," Holder said.
Holder said on "The Rachel Maddow Show" Wednesday evening that he will be in Wisconsin in April campaigning in a state Supreme Court race there, and Obama will also be campaigning in 2018 and "he'll be talking to us about the kinds of places where we think his influence can have an impact."
"And I would expect that you’ll see him doing things you might not expect of a former president in terms of the level, the level at which he will become involved, and the same thing for me," Holder said on the program.
Democrats focused on gerrymandering have some recent news to celebrate. In addition to a series of special election victories in state races around the country since 2017, Pennsylvania's state Supreme Court recently ruled that its congressional districts, drawn by a Republican-controlled government, violate the state constitution. The United States Supreme Court denied a request by the state GOP this week to block the decision. Depending on the new map, it could potentially make several seats more competitive heading into November.
There are also efforts in some states to change the redistricting process itself, sometimes with bipartisan support. Gov. John Kasich in Ohio, a Republican, is backing a ballot initiative in May, negotiated by both parties in the state legislature, that would give the minority a bigger role in deciding future maps after the GOP dominated the post-2010 process. In Michigan, another swing state where Republicans drew maps to their advantage, Holder's group is monitoring a push for a ballot initiative that could empower an independent commission to address the issue. They also are preparing to protect similar commissions in states like Arizona, which has a competitive map.
Holder seemed to be offering a hint that he might have his own personal ambitions once the election cycle is over. Asked about reports that he may be considering a 2020 presidential run, he responded, "We'll see." He added that he plans to "make a decision by the end of the year about whether or not there's another chapter in my government service."