Karl Rove Is Right About Importance of Local Elections

Karl Rove has lately been broadcasting the importance of downballot elections in places with names like Brushy Creek. In 2010, a few smaller races will have an outsized impact on the national political stage. So he’s right....

March 24, 2010

Originally published at Roll Call.

Karl Rove has lately been broadcasting the importance of downballot elections in places with names like Brushy Creek. This is not a lesson in civics. It is a lesson in power. And he’s right.

Races for state Representative don’t often get much local attention, much less national limelight. But in 2010, a few smaller races will have an outsized impact on the national political stage.

In 43 states, the state Legislature is primarily in charge of drawing the lines for Congressional districts.  While some states meaningfully constrain this process, most do not.  Together, this means that he who controls the state Legislature can control redistricting — and, as Rove recognized in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.”

The stakes are substantial. Here, I’ll quote Mr. Rove again: “To understand the broader political implications, consider that the GOP gained somewhere between 25 and 30 seats because of the redistricting that followed the 1990 census. Without those seats, Republicans would not have won the House in 1994.”  That’s not to mention the narrower political implications of legislators picking some voters and punting others in order to reward friends and punish enemies.

Republicans are gearing up again, with a national strategy to win the state races that will drive redistricting. Democrats plan to vigorously fund the other side of the arms race. 

The combat will be brutal. Consider this bit of candor, captured during an Illinois county’s 2001 redistricting process [hat tip for the pointer to Mark Rosen]: “We are going to shove [the map] up your f------ a-- and you are going to like it, and I'll f--- any Republican I can.”

If this is the view from the inside, perhaps it is time to rethink the process. There aren’t many good reasons to explain why control of a few local races should be able to rig the national Congressional field. Or why partisan players should be encouraged to “mov[e], say, 20 districts from competitive to out-of-reach,” as Mr. Rove suggests, so that campaigns won’t have to work as hard.

Some offer a Churchillian defense, asserting that giving state legislators the Congressional pen is the worst system we know . . .  except for all others. And it is true that alternatives must be smart: A group that does not reflect the diversity of the state, or one that is naive about the many redistricting trade-offs, or one with its hands bound by inflexible rules, may produce worse results than the broken process we have now. 

Yet smart exists: in a few states, balanced redistricting bodies limit the biggest conflicts of interest, even without forcing individuals to check their partisan preferences at the door. And the sky has not fallen, even in the Big Sky State. Indeed, as elections in places like Brushy Creek get more attention this fall for all the wrong reasons, more states may want to consider not whether Karl Rove’s advice is right, but whether it should be.