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October 15, 2013 11:52 AM Gerrymandering With a Capital “G”

By Ed Kilgore

As the internal demons of the Republican Party continue to bust out into the open and cavort across the national stage, arguments over the relative significance of gerrymandering in creating or intensifying the pathologies of the House GOP continue, including a pretty sharp exchange between two of my favorite writers, Dave Weigel and Nate Cohn. They don’t actually much disagree, but Nate’s dismissal of gerrymandering as a major factor in the government shutdown and Dave’s half-serious reference to “gerrymandering denialists” both kicked up some blogospheric dust.

I’ve written about this before, but the confusion may come from how the term “partisan gerrymandering” is defined. Nate assumes partisan-seat-maximization is what it means, and that, of course, is very different from shielding seats from competition, and may in fact lead in exactly the opposite direction. But Dave offers an example, in North Carolina, of a gerrymander that simultaneously flipped D seats to R and made R seats less competitive. That might be described as gerrymandering with a capital “G,” and it’s not possible everywhere.

I continue to wonder if the planted axiom here—that non-competitive Republican seats encourage hyper-ideological conservatism—is always accurate. One path of political survival for Republicans in very competitive seats—viz. Allen West—is to go egregiously crazy and make oneself a national fundraising behemoth. Yes, West lost re-election in 2012, but is also now a national political celebrity and Fox “contributor.”

But without question, partisans in charge of gerrymandering try to simultaneously maximize their party’s opportunities for winning new seats while strengthening their hold on seats already won. There are a variety of national organizations devoted to helping them achieve these dual and sometimes conflicting goals as efficiently as possible, along with software using exceptionally detailed data—kinda like video games for political hacks. So it’s not surprising Republicans (and in some states, Democrats) have managed to flip a variety of House seats while reducing the number exposed to the rigors of general-election competition.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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