Former president Barack Obama will formally reenter the political fray this week less than six months after leaving office, headlining a fundraiser for a group that could prove critical to the Democratic Party’s rebuilding efforts.
Obama’s appearance Thursday before a few dozen people at a closed-door event in the District on behalf of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) highlights the balance he is trying to strike as his party seeks to regain its footing at both the state and national levels. Obama does not want to cast “a long shadow,” in the words of Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, but he remains a central figure for a party that has yet to settle on a single strategy to combat President Trump.
Perez said in an interview Sunday that while some Democrats have urged Obama recently, “You’ve got to get out front on issue X or issue Y,” the former president wants instead to “build the bench” for the party. Democrats suffered a greater loss of power during Obama’s tenure than under any other two-term president since World War II.
“Because tomorrow’s president is today’s state senator. And he knows that very personally,” said Perez, referring to Obama’s experience as a state senator in Illinois. “When you lose 900 state legislative seats, those are people who could have been the next governors and senators and Cabinet positions, and that is something that he’s very committed to.”
The NDRC’s executive director, Kelly Ward, would not say how much the fundraiser is expected to bring in. But she said Obama “still has such a microphone” to help convince donors to invest in state-level races and help in “shining a light” on a phenomenon that influences the outcome of elections year after year.
“That bully pulpit still very much rests with him,” Ward said.
The NDRC aims to influence how state and federal legislative districts are drawn and hopes to create “a centralized, strategic hub for a comprehensive redistricting strategy,” she said. The group’s chairman, former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also are scheduled to appear.
Corry Bliss, the Congressional Leadership Fund executive director whose super PAC is affiliated with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), said in an interview that Democrats’ efforts to regain ground will be hampered by the fact that “people in the middle think they are out of touch with the problems of ordinary Americans.”
“It’s a brand that is beholden to Nancy Pelosi and liberal, Left Coast elitism,” Bliss said. “The Democrats couldn’t find real America with Nancy Pelosi’s chauffeur and a map.”
Bliss added that the GOP already has multiple groups working on redistricting, “and I am confident they will be well funded and well run.”
In his final news conference as president in January, Obama said that he would wade into the national political debate only at “certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake,” including voter suppression. Since then, he has issued statements on some of the Republicans’ highest-profile assaults on his legacy, including Trump’s executive actions to curb immigration and exit the Paris climate agreement, and congressional Republicans’ efforts to unravel the Affordable Care Act through legislation crafted behind the scenes and without Democrats’ input.
The fundraiser is a more targeted political act, focused on the upcoming legislative apportionment that will establish the electoral playing field for the next decade.
The process of drawing districts differs by state: some have independent commissions, while most are drawn by state legislators and subject to approval by governors. But even with those variations, the 2017 and 2018 cycle will feature 38 gubernatorial races and 322 state senate races with four-year terms. Perez described it as “a 12- or 13-year cycle, because whoever wins is going to control redistricting in a very real way.”
In a statement, Obama’s spokesman Kevin Lewis said the former president wants to support the committee’s “efforts to address unfair gerrymandering practices that leave too many American voters feeling voiceless in the electoral process.”
“Restoring fairness to our democracy by advocating for fairer, more inclusive district maps around the country is a priority for President Obama,” Lewis said.
One senior Obama adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly, said the former president will be “supporting efforts that tackle the inequities of our current political system,” although he would only weigh in publicly on political questions sparingly.
While still nascent, the new tax-exempt group represents the party’s most ambitious effort yet to try to erase the steep disadvantage it faces on the state and federal level due to the maps put in place after the 2010 Census. A recent analysis by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found that lines drawn in battleground states to aid one party over another — a process known as gerrymandering — provides the GOP with a “durable advantage” of at least 16 House seats.
The GOP’s massive electoral gains in 2010, bolstered by a roughly $30 million effort by party donors, has continued to benefit the party in subsequent elections.
In 2011, when state legislators and governors were drawing districts in many states, Republicans have 22 states in which they held the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers, while Democrats controlled 11. The situation has grown even bleaker for Democrats, since they have just six such trifectas now to the GOP’s 25.
But Democrats now see cause for optimism, in part because of several recent legal victories. In May the Supreme Court struck down two North Carolina congressional districts as unconstitutional, finding that lawmakers used race as the dominant factor when crafting their lines. The court has made similar rulings regarding Alabama and Virginia, and has agreed to take up a case regarding gerrymandering in the coming year.
And a federal judges panel in Texas, which found that lawmakers had intentionally discriminated against minority voters in crafting state and U.S. House seats in 2011, has scheduled a trial that will start Monday, which could lead to new maps for these districts in 2018.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said in an interview that if the justices side with the Democrats in upcoming cases involving Wisconsin and Texas, for example, it “will certainly change the way legislatures go about drawing lines.”
But he added that “the sea wall” Republicans have created through state and federal legislative maps has proved durable, and preserves state legislative districts that will make it more difficult to win state legislative seats in the next couple of years.
“Even though it is seven years later, that sea wall is still up, and that means Democrats are still fighting uphill,” Levitt said.
For that reason, Democrats will strongly focus on critical gubernatorial races in the next couple of years, including in Virginia, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Holder already has spoken at an event on behalf of the Democratic nominee in the Virginia governor’s race, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, and the NDRC is working with multiple state legislative candidates there. It is also weighing whether to back redistricting reform ballot initiatives in Ohio or elsewhere.
“In those states where gubernatorial approval is required for a redistricting plan, the race for governor is the largest prize in the competition to ensure one’s party does not get completely punished in the redistricting process,” said Stanford Law School professor Nathaniel Persily, who has served as a special master or court-appointed expert in New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Georgia to draw nonpartisan redistricting plans.