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Obama’s post-presidency political focus: Redistricting

President Obama greets residents as he arrives at Pittsburgh’s International Airport on Oct. 13. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Hoping to regain lost ground in the states before elected officials there redraw congressional maps for the next decade, Democrats have launched a new group that will enlist the aid of President Obama as well as a slew of the party’s liberal allies.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which will be chaired by former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., will focus on key legislative and gubernatorial races, voter initiatives and legal fights.

While former presidents periodically campaign for individual candidates after leaving office, Obama’s decision to back such a broad, organizing political effort after leaving the White House marks a rare, if not unprecedented, step in the modern era. While the initiative will not be the sole focus of the president’s future political activism, it provides a lens into how he will leverage his influence in the years to come.

Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Elisabeth Pearson, who will serve as president of the new 527 group, said in an interview Monday that the committee will make it easier for elements of the party to make the national political landscape more favorable to Democrats when House seats are drawn based on the 2020 Census response.

“It’s obviously critically important,” Pearson said, adding that while the DGA and a handful of other groups have worked more closely on such targeting this cycle, “this kind of coordinated effort will make it easier to figure out where the holes are.”

Officials affiliated with the group, which also includes House Majority PAC executive director Ali Lapp as vice president and former representative Mark Schauer (D-Mich.) as a senior adviser, have consulted closely with the White House over its formation. White House officials approved the appointment of Holder, for example, who is a close personal friend of Obama’s and helped oversee the administration’s redistricting litigation while serving under the president.

“American voters deserve fair maps that represent our diverse communities – and we need a coordinated strategy to make that happen,” Holder said in a statement. “This unprecedented new effort will ensure Democrats have a seat at the table to create fairer maps after 2020.”

White House officials said the president’s interest in the project stems from his belief that part of the problem of partisanship in Washington stems from Republicans fearing their seats will be at stake if they compromise with Democrats due to how their districts are drawn.

“Over the past eight years the president has seen first-hand Republicans pulled to the far right for fear of a primary challenge instead of trying to govern from the center,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

Politico first reported news of the group’s creation Monday morning.

After seeing Democrats lose ground during his tenure, Obama plunges into 2016 race

There is no question Democrats remain at a disadvantage compared to the GOP on the state level—a problem that has only worsened under Obama’s presidency. Between 2008 and 2015, Democrats lost 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 913 state legislative seats, 11 governorships and 32 state legislative chambers, according to data compiled by University of Virginia professor Larry J. Sabato.

“I’m sure Democrats appreciate the president’s attempt to clean up the down ballot devastation he has caused for his own party, but essentially putting his name back on the ballot in 2018 doesn’t seem to be the best strategy for winning these seats back,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short in an email.

The next election cycle could be more challenging for Democrats, depending on how Americans vote in November. The party will already be defending five Senate seats in historically red states as well as another six in states that backed Republicans in 2010. They will have to defend any House seats they gain this fall and if Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wins the White House, that could make voters more open to bolstering the GOP’s ranks on both the federal and state level.

On the other hand, there are multiple gubernatorial and state legislatures that will likely be in play next election, in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida.

The organization formally registered with the Internal Revenue Service on Aug. 15, and has yet to disclose how much money it has raised.

While Democrats had sought to coordinate more of their activities this cycle with an eye toward future congressional maps, Lapp said in became clear after nearly a year of discussions “that this was what was needed: an entity that cared about nothing but redistricting.”

“None of this matters if you don’t have more funders brought to the table,” she said, adding that the fact that both Obama and Holder have signed on “gives it a heft and a gravitas that’s really needed when you’re asking people to put larger goal ahead of their own goal, when the time comes.”

Schauer — who was elected to the House in 2008, lost two years later and decided not to run in 2012 after Michigan GOP officials moved his home county out of the House seat he had occupied — said Republicans have used redistricting to effectively disenfranchise Democrats.

“That’s what they did to me and people like me all over the country,” said Schauer, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in Michigan two years ago.

Can a new data system help House Democrats overcome their structural disadvantage on the playing field?

Schauer, who set up the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s “Advantage 2020” redistricting effort in February 2015, said the broader group is poised to attract support not just from party officials but multiple labor unions and America Votes — a coalition of liberal activists that includes abortion rights and environmental organizations.

While it will be difficult to overcome Republicans’ structural advantage in some states, Schauer said, “we will speak with one voice to national donors and help explain the importance of the redistricting process.”

“Look, this is hard work,” he said. “That’s exactly why we need the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.”