RICHMOND, Virginia — When Eric Holder and Barack Obama go on vacation together, they talk about redistricting.
“We were determined to do things not political,” the former attorney general said of a recent trip with the former president in an interview with NBC News ahead of a speech to the Virginia Democratic Party last weekend. “This was the political thing that we talked about the most.”
After struggling with a heavily gerrymandered House of Representatives for most of his presidency, Obama tapped Holder to lead a new group to prepare Democrats for 2020, when states will redraw the boundaries of their legislative and congressional districts for the first time in a decade.
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Democrats dropped the ball on redistricting in 2010, for which Obama has taken some responsibility. But they’re feeling more confident about the next round, thanks to a centralized operation in Holder’s new National Democratic Redistricting Committee and recent court decisions taking an increasingly hard look at gerrymandering.
On Monday, the Supreme Court said it would consider — for the first time — whether political gerrymandering violates the Constitution. The court regularly rules on racial gerrymandering, but this case, regarding a map designed to benefit Republicans in Wisconsin, could break new ground and have potentially far-reaching consequences.
Republicans have typically been more invested in the esoteric but important work of map drawing, with Holder joking, “Part of my job is to make redistricting sexy” for Democrats.
But the issue has gained more attention in recent years among both officials and the grassroots, making a 20-minute segment on the topic from Jon Oliver HBO’s show an unlikely viral sensation.
Holder met last week with donors and labor leaders in Washington, D.C., and was joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe for small sessions with top party fundraisers in five major cities over the past two months.
Wherever he’s gone, Holder said, he’s been “surprised” that “people really understand how important this is.”
The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which first launched in January, brings together under one roof the official Democratic committees responsible for electing governors and legislatures, along with related super PACs and other relevant groups.
Unlike past efforts in either party, that centralization will allow the group to coordinate Democrats’ full slate of redistricting efforts — from lawsuits, to electoral campaigns, to ballot measures designed to change the redistricting process, to the data-heavy art and science of the actual map drawing.
“Having all of those tools in one place — that is a major innovation. That has never been done before,” said Kelly Ward, the NDRC’s executive director, who left a similar role running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to join the new group.
Both parties gerrymander, but Republicans have been better at it, thanks in part to well-timed wave election in 2010. A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that gerrymandering is responsible for at least 16 GOP House seats — nearly two-thirds of the 24 that Democrats need to flip the chamber.
“We have to do this as Democrats because we’re at a major structural disadvantage right now. The Republicans broke the system and we have to go in and fix it,” Ward told NBC News.
Ahead of next year’s midterm elections, the NDRC is focusing on states that happen to have key races and be some of the most gerrymandered in the country, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota. “It is a perfect storm in all the right places,” said Ward.
One potential hurdle for the group is its own incumbent lawmakers, who like having safe districts where they win by comfortable margins, even if it might be better for the party as a whole if some of their voters were drawn into neighboring districts which could help elect more Democrats.
That’s been especially true in legally protected majority-minority districts, where a so-called “unholy alliance” between African-American lawmakers and Republicans has complicated Democratic redistricting in the past.
Holder, who calls fairer districts “a civil rights issue,” acknowledged it will “take some persuasion with some.”
But he said he thinks times are changing as Democrats grow frustrated with being out of power, pointing to examples like Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), who gave up some reliable voters in his district for the good of the party.
“People in the House are tired of being ranking members — they want to be chairmen. And this is the way in which we change their status,” Holder said.