Nearly four years after conservatives' takeover of many key states in 2010, the impact of partisan gerrymandering on policy in Congress and state legislatures is enormous. Indeed, much of the dysfunction and gridlock in Washington can be ascribed to the many members of the GOP majority cloistered in very safe districts, where they enjoy cozy insulation from their opposition and only potential primary challenges threatening their political survival.
Back in May of 2010, I wrote a Huffington Post op-ed arguing that the most important battle for Congress wasn't which party secured at least 218 seats that November, but which party held legislative majorities and governorships in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania impacted by congressional reapportionment. I believed a conservative congressional majority ensconced in safe districts would relentlessly seek to repeal Obamacare and would be compelled to stymie immigration reform due to pressure from the Right. Alas, this is essentially how our politics have played out over the last four years.
The importance of who controls redistricting still cannot be overstated. We need to be ready to play a long game focused on incremental gains, and six years out from the next census is certainly not too early to prepare for it. For progressives, the cruel fact of the matter is that the greatest Republican tsunami in American history, gaining a whopping 680 legislative seats and securing 29 governorships, happened to come in a year ending in "0" - just in time to redraw district lines.
There will likely be efforts to make redistricting a non-partisan process in several states after the 2020 census. But in most states, it will remain a bare-knuckled political process controlled by partisan leadership. If we are going to roll-back conservatives' gerrymandered districts, every election until then counts.
The GOP's 2010 landslide was an anomaly in the recent history of elections coinciding with the census. What happens over several election cycles leading up to the decennial census typically shapes the redistricting process. The roots of many current Republican gerrymanders arguably extend all the way back to 1994 -- 17 years before the most recent redistricting process -- when the GOP first seized control of chambers in key states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
To reverse those gerrymanders, progressives need a "three yards and a cloud of dust" strategy. In football, "three yards and a cloud of dust" isn't the most exciting game plan, but it consistently moves the ball forward. Every decade presents just five opportunities to elect state legislative majorities, and this November will be our second out of five plays to inch closer to the post-2020 end zone.
Progressives' playbook for 2014 must approach this election as part of a long-term strategy that prioritizes wins in the states projected to gain or lose congressional seats following the 2020 census. Michigan, which is currently projected to lose a seat, is a good example of where conservatives used redistricting in 2011 to protect their majorities in Washington and in Lansing (the state House map was challenged in court for diluting minority voting strength) and where progressives can pursue this kind of long-term strategy.
In 2012, America Votes and our Michigan partner organizations focused on the state House and successfully unseated six members of the conservative majority, leaving progressives within six seats of retaking the chamber in 2014. Michigan has 110 House districts typically with electorates of 65,000-85,000 voters, so a swing of just a couple thousand votes in a handful of these small districts can have a huge impact on control of the chamber throughout this decade -- and ultimately redistricting after 2020.
Focusing on gains in key states like Michigan every two years is the "three yards and a cloud of dust" strategy needed for undoing Republican gerrymandering. If we focus on the long-game and building back power in the states over time, progressives won't need a "Hail Mary" pass in 2020 -- we'll already be ahead the game.