Deep in minority, Dems look to redistricting for hope

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Facing long odds at retaking the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats are pushing hard for redistricting reform as a potential route back into control of the lower chamber. 

The legislation is not new –– many Democrats, including Pelosi, have been advocating for independent redistricting panels for at least a decade –– nor is it going anywhere in a Congress led by Republicans who are benefitting handsomely under the current process. 

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But Pelosi’s co-sponsorship of this year’s reform proposal marks a rare move for a party leader who seldom lends an official signature to individual bills.

Her formal endorsement is both an escalation of support for non-partisan redistricting and an indication that Democratic leaders want to rein in gerrymandering and lay the groundwork for reform heading into the 2016 elections.

It may also be a tacit acknowledgement that the current map gives the Democrats little chance of regaining the Speaker's gavel before the next national census, in 2020.

Party leaders have repeatedly noted that the Democrats won the popular vote in 2012, even as Republicans retained a commanding House majority. Redrawing the map, in that context, is seen as crucial to winning back the chamber.

“Democrats are fixated on the point that, if districts had been more on the level, we would have won back the House in 2012,” said one former House Democrat. “So gauging the map becomes an imperative.”

The former lawmaker was quick to concede that Republican leaders would never consider redistricting reform for that very reason. But highlighting the issue shows Democratic voters that party leaders aren't accepting minority status without a fight.

“It does create ballast, and it probably helps to raise money. It shows the donor base that we're really trying to win,” the Democrat said. “We're not going to win the House [in 2016], but it could get a lot closer. And we could win the Senate.”

Sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the legislation would require states to establish “an independent, multi-party redistricting commission” chosen randomly from a qualified pool. The group would be charged with drawing congressional districts that must be “geographically contiguous; have boundaries that minimize the division of any community of interest, municipality, county, or neighborhood; and be geographically compact.”

A similar bill, sponsored by Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), mandates comparable commissions, but members would be appointed directly by the state leaders from each party.

Lofgren has introduced various versions of her bill in each Congress since 2005, but support has peaked this year with 37 co-sponsors, and Democratic leaders have played up the proposal by including it in the party's “good governance” package.

Democratic operatives say the new prominence hinges on numerous factors, not least the 2010 election route when Democrats lost 63 seats and the House majority. In the years leading up to that election, national GOP leaders and outside conservative groups had launched a concerted effort to win the state-house seats that empowered the Republicans to redraw many state maps in their favor.

The dynamics have not been overlooked by Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump campaign: Clinton visiting Pa. like robber visiting victim Koch officials skeptical of Trump's alleged meeting invite Clinton hammers Trump for criticizing retired general MORE, the Democratic front-runner in the race for the White House, who urged supporters Friday to re-focus on winning state seats.

“In 2010, Republicans routed us on redistricting. Not because they won Congress, but because they won state legislatures. And look where we are now,” the former secretary of State told a crowd gathered in Minneapolis for the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) annual summer meeting. “We can't ever let that happen again. It's time to rebuild our party from the ground up, and if you make me the nominee, that's exactly what I will do.”

Licy DoCanto, head of The DoCanto Group, a public policy consulting firm, said it's not unusual or surprising that the Democrats, the overall losers of the last redistricting effort, would emerge now as the loudest voices in favor of federal reforms.

“When you're on the receiving end, you go out and look for a way to change the process,” DoCanto said. “A non-partisan redistricting process can be a partisan tool, depending on how you shape it.”

Reform supporters argue that years of partisan redistricting has led to entrenched gridlock on Capitol Hill by creating districts –– represented by both parties –– with strong base ideologies that discourage political compromise. Independent commissions would go a long way towards breaking the gridlock, they say.

“Constituents want them to take a strong stance on one side or the other,” said a former Democratic leadership aide. “[Gridlock] has been a real and probably unanticipated effect.”

Without action in Congress, dozens of states have stepped in to establish independent redistricting commissions on their own. Supporters of the shift won a huge victory in June when the Supreme Court upheld the creation of such a panel in Arizona –– a decision that has only amplified the calls for Congress to adopt federal guidelines.

“With the Court’s decision and the clear public sentiment, it behooves the Congress to pass legislation setting national standards for state redistricting commissions,” Pelosi said in praising the ruling.

Still, the reform push is hardly a strictly partisan one. Indeed, many Democrats –– including some minority lawmakers in the south –– have benefitted from the Republicans' gerrymandering efforts, which in places carved out safely Democratic seats amid a sea of red districts.

Those lawmakers are “hesitant to embrace” sweeping changes that could threaten their reelections, according to the Democratic leadership aide. 

“There are some who benefit significantly even as it runs against the larger Democratic Party,” the aide said.

The former lawmaker echoed that message, saying Pelosi's official endorsement is no guarantee that all her troops are behind her.

“I think the leadership has evolved on this. I don't know if individual members have,” the Democrat said. “I had a great district, and if there was some commission that was going to carve that up and make it more competitive, I wouldn't have been happy with that.”