Eric Holder Takes Virginia

The Democratic plan to dominate state legislatures has its first electoral success.

By Kimberley Strassel      November 8, 2019

Analysts are reading Tuesday’s tea leaves, predicting what the off-year election results mean for the presidential race. But one victory is beyond dispute. Former Attorney General Eric Holder will be celebrating this week for a decade.

Democrats on Tuesday won total control of Virginia’s government, adding both chambers of the General Assembly to the governor’s mansion. They will redraw Virginia’s legislative district lines after next year’s census. The Old Dominion was already moving left, though the redistricting power likely cements Democratic dominance over Virginia for the next 10 years.

This was Mr. Holder’s plan. While most prominent Democrats spent the months following Donald Trump’s election plotting future runs, Mr. Holder was launching the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, committed to domination of electoral mapmaking through the courts and legislatures. The NDRC spent its first years aggressively litigating legislative maps it didn’t like, to great success. Virginia’s election was the first test of the electoral piece of Mr. Holder’s strategy, and it will now serve as the model by which Democrats attempt to gain redistricting power in 11 other key states next year.

The NDRC claims its efforts are aimed at simple “fairness in the electoral system.” It says it’s working to overturn gerrymanders that “disenfranchise” voters. Don’t be fooled. Mr. Holder’s group has never engaged in blue states where Democrats routinely draw maps to disadvantage Republicans, such as Maryland, Massachusetts or New Jersey.

The NDRC is instead the Democratic version of the GOP’s success of a decade ago, the Redmap Project. Democrats, flush from Barack Obama’s 2008 victory, tuned out the state legislatures. Republicans used their inattention, along with a sweeping cash advantage and a backlash against the Obama presidency, to flip 21 state chambers in 2010, allowing them to dominate map-drawing after that year’s census. That power helped consolidate Republican control of state chambers and the U.S. House. Republicans might be flattered by Mr. Holder’s imitation—if they weren’t so busy getting crushed.

The Holder “sue to blue” litigation strategy has already yielded major gains for Democrats, as state judges struck down maps drawn by Republicans and required changes that ultimately aided the Democrats. Example: Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court—which is chosen through partisan elections and has a Democratic majority—in 2018 overruled the U.S. House maps drawn by the Republican legislature and produced its own version. The new maps helped Democrats flip three net seats. In Virginia, federal judges redrew the state legislative map to aid candidates running this week.

Mr. Holder built on those victories, using Tuesday’s election to carry out his group’s plan for state legislative dominance. The NDRC announced in August its support, to the tune of $250,000, for 17 Democrats running in state legislative elections. The more important contribution was to concentrate the liberal mind on the redistricting project. Left-wing activist groups had their own motives for wanting Democratic control in Virginia—gun control, abortion, labor and energy policy. But Mr. Holder and his backer Barack Obama have been pitching donors and activists on their plan for years, and the prospect of redistricting power and long-term Democratic dominance proved a powerful additional motivator.

Democratic groups threw at least $54 million at Virginia—an unprecedented sum in an election that didn’t feature a single federal office—outspending Republicans by some $12 million. Outside groups accounted for at least $22 million of the Democratic effort, nearly four times what they spent in 2015. Three billionaires—Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and George Soros—and their organizations spent more than all outside Republican contributors combined.

Republican donors and groups are caught in the same funk as Democrats in 2009—too focused on the president and his fights to engage in the battle at the state level. The Republican State Leadership Committee—charged with getting and keeping state chambers—understood the stakes in Virginia, and it was one of the largest single spenders in the race. But it proved no match for the Democratic juggernaut.

Republicans are proving similarly flat-footed in combating Mr. Holder’s legal strategy. Democrats are ramping up litigation, increasingly relying on state judges—many of them elected and partisan, as in Pennsylvania—to do their bidding. Their goal in some of next year’s legislative races is simply to flip one chamber in each state, deadlocking Republicans and Democrats, potentially throwing the question to the courts. That means Republicans will need to put a huge new effort into electing state judges who refrain from meddling in the redistricting function, which the U.S. Constitution assigns to state legislatures.

Mr. Holder’s plan to take over nearly a dozen more states next year is far from a fait accompli. Virginia was already trending blue, and he will face a harder task in other target states such as Florida, Georgia and Texas. But the threat to the GOP is real. And if the party doesn’t take up that challenge soon, it’s going to lose its opportunity for another decade.

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