The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP strategy for retaking power is about to take an ugly new turn

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at a news conference in Hialeah, Fla., on Aug. 5 (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It is a brutal reality about this political moment that Republicans can capture the House while dwelling almost exclusively in the safe confines of their alternate information environment.

In this hermetically sealed-off place, Republicans can continue deifying former president Donald Trump even as evidence mounts of his naked plot to steal the last election. They can oppose an accounting into the worst outbreak of political violence in recent U.S. history despite their deep implication in it.

They can dismiss broadly popular economic policies as “socialism” while withdrawing from the conversation entirely about how they would address our deepest challenges. They can actively campaign against mask mandates despite their overwhelming public support, while boasting straight-facedly that this is good strategy.

A key reason for this state of affairs will become clearer on Thursday, when the gerrymandering wars kick off in earnest. The release of new census data will set off a scramble of state legislatures redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines, setting the political playing field for 2022.

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It has been widely established that Republicans can recapture the House on the strength of extreme gerrymanders alone. They need to net five seats, and those could be added based solely on redrawn district lines.

Indeed, Samuel Wang, the director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, has concluded that if Republicans successfully gerrymander, they can win the House if the 2022 national popular vote rivals the 2020 Democratic edge of three points.

Meanwhile, a recent study by the Democratic data firm TargetSmart concluded that Republicans can add anywhere from six to 13 seats based on redrawn maps in just four states — Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. And the Brennan Center for Justice has also concluded that redrawn lines in those four states could determine House control.

A Brennan Center study highlights a perfect storm of factors. Republicans control all four of those state legislatures. Recent Supreme Court rulings — hobbling federal preclearance over voting changes and placing partisan gerrymanders beyond court supervision — removed key guardrails.

Meanwhile, as Ronald Brownstein notes, population growth, increasing diversification and growing minority vote share in Southern states is boosting GOP incentives to double down on anti-majoritarian tactics to hold back the demographic tide.

Even Republicans themselves gush that they can recapture the House via gerrymanders. Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.) recently enthused that GOP control of “most” redistricting across the country “alone should get us the majority back.”

If Jackson understood this as an admission that Republicans must rig the playing field in glaringly anti-majoritarian ways to be competitive, it certainly didn’t seem to trouble him. He openly boasted about this as a sign of Republican strength.

The news is not all terrible for Democrats. As the New York Times summarizes:

Political maps are already extremely gerrymandered, making it difficult to increase their partisan tilts. Some states that drew extensively gerrymandered maps, including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, now have divided government; others, like Michigan, have adopted independent redistricting commissions.

Democratic governors in some states can veto bad GOP-drawn maps. Democrats are already vowing to contest GOP gerrymanders in state courts. And a few Democratic states can fight the tide by gerrymandering themselves.

But that will force a tough choice between honoring the party’s committed opposition to anti-majoritarian tactics and avoiding unilateral disarmament against the enthusiastic GOP embrace of such tactics in a fundamentally national war.

None of this relieves Democrats of responsibility for 2022. They lost a number of seats in 2020, and there are real questions about whether they are too complacent that big policy wins alone can hold the House. They must also effectively prosecute the case against GOP radicalization.

But, ultimately, all this isn’t just about partisan advantage. It’s also about the counter-majoritarian fate that Democrats will consign the country to if they refuse to end the filibuster to pass their package of democracy protections, including an end to extreme gerrymanders via independent redistricting commissions.

It may be too late for such protections to matter. But as Ari Berman details, that package contains provisions that could create new ways to challenge extreme maps — despite the Supreme Court’s rulings — and Democrats must reach for all tools available.

After all, the structural difficulties are bleak. Elections analyst Stephen Wolf calculates that Republicans will exercise total control over redrawing 4 or 5 out of 10 House districts nationally, while for Democrats it’s fewer than 2. (As my book argues, this strengthens the case for Democrats to do far better in winning ground in the states.)

As for Republicans, it’s true that they’re not exclusively talking to their base. They hope attacks on critical race theory and fearmongering about the border, crime and inflation from Democratic spending will bring back suburban voters.

But it’s plainly obvious that their strategy mainly revolves around torquing up the base into the greatest frenzy possible, and letting extreme gerrymanders and other anti-majoritarian tactics do the rest.

We often talk about the biggest factors in our politics as separate stories. The political media covers the tendency of Republicans to speak mainly to their base, the GOP midterm strategy, and the GOP embrace of counter-majoritarian tactics as natural background conditions of our politics. The coverage rarely conveys faithfully just how deeply unbalanced a situation the interlocking of all these factors has created.

But they are deeply intermingled. The fact that Republicans can recapture the House via extreme gerrymanders alone, and the enthusiastic embrace of other anti-majoritarian tactics, help enable both the GOP’s toxic midterm strategy and the party’s near-total withdrawal from the mainstream conversation — and all the ugliness and destruction that come with them.