Former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. made an urgent appeal to Democrats on Thursday to focus more attention on state elections, as he framed the coming battle over redrawing congressional districts as a pivotal fight in the effort to rescue the party from an era of Republican-dominated governance.
“Presidential elections are obviously important, but we lost sight of the fact that if you want to have a representative in Congress, you’ve got to make sure that you have state legislatures that are drawing districts that will yield a representative in Congress,” Holder said.
Putting his own twist on a gripe that President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly made during his campaign, Holder asserted that the “biggest rigged system in America is gerrymandering.”
The former top prosecutor made his remarks during an appearance at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, where he formally launched the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC). With Holder as its chair, the group will aim to influence the way districts are carved out after the 2020 Census.
No comparable Democratic groups exist. Republicans have been deploying hefty resources to state politics for years through national initiatives such as the billionaire Koch brothers’ vast political network. President Obama, who is not only a former boss but a friend of Holder’s, intends to put some of his post-presidential weight behind the NDRC’s efforts.
The organization’s launch comes at a low moment for Democrats. They are confronting deep uncertainty about their party’s future and faced with a daunting rebuilding project. A string of stinging electoral defeats has diminished their ranks in governors’ mansions and state legislatures in recent years.
On top of that, Republicans will assume control of the White House and Congress next week when Trump is sworn in.
Holder said his organization’s strategy will focus on three areas: making electoral gains in governors’ races and other state contests relevant to redistricting, arming Democrats with the legal firepower for court fights over maps, and trying to affect the ballot initiatives aimed at changing the maps.
The push will face tests this year in the Virginia governor’s race and possible special state legislative elections in North Carolina, which Holder identified as early priorities for the committee.
In most states, the drawing of congressional and state legislative maps falls upon state legislatures, with governors also having a say in the final product. After the election, Republicans control 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Democrats acknowledge that Republican success in state elections leading up to the redistricting conducted after the 2010 Census helped them grab and cement their control of the U.S. House. The GOP holds a 241-to-194 advantage over Democrats.
“I think what we are seeing now is gerrymandering on steroids,” Holder said.
In addition to the challenges Democrats face in state races and the U.S. House, they are at serious risk of becoming a smaller minority in the U.S. Senate during the 2018 midterms.
Twenty-five Democratic senators face reelection, compared with just eight Republicans. Adding to their challenge: Some Democratic senators are up in ruby-red states that Trump won.
The battle for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination could also be a bruising affair for the party, as there is no clear front-runner.
But Holder encouraged Democrats to keep their heads up. “This is not the time for despair and retreat,” he said.
Republicans argued that Democrats stand to have little success with Holder’s endeavor.
“As Democrats continue pondering what went wrong for them last November, they appear to have landed on the wrong scapegoat,” Republican State Leadership Committee communications director Ellie Hockenbury said in a statement responding to Holder’s remarks. “Republicans at the state and federal level are winning at historic numbers not seen in generations because we are running superior candidates with better ideas.”
The NDRC is organized as a 527 group under the tax code. Kelly Ward, a veteran Democratic operative who spent the past four years helming the House Democrats’ campaign arm, is serving as the interim executive director of the committee. The NDRC board consists of strategists with experience in state legislative and gubernatorial contests.
Democrats don’t expect much in the way of partnership from the incoming administration on voting matters. Both stylistically and on policy, there are clear differences between Holder and Trump.
During a question-and-answer portion of his talk Thursday, Holder chided Trump over his criticism of the media at a Wednesday news conference.
“ ‘I’m not answering your questions. You’re fake news,’ ” Holder quipped in response to a question from CNN that echoed Trump’s dismissal of the news organization on Wednesday.
On a more serious note, Holder said he is not expecting to be able to work closely with the Trump administration on voting issues because of stark differences in their philosophies.
“I’d certainly look for opportunities to work with the incoming administration, but I’m not going to be naive,” Holder said. “I don’t think that their views are going to be consistent with ours.”
He added: “Miracles happen, I suppose. But I wouldn’t be banking on that.”