Blue Thoughts from a Red State: Jim Ryun and the Failure of GOP Gerrymandering

by Jesse Zerger Nathan on November 30, 2006

For the past three weeks, Republicans and political pundits have been pondering what, exactly, went so distinctly wrong in the GOP strategy this election season. Theories abound, from the most obvious and basic—Bush and his unpopular war—to the suggestion that Karl Rove’s once unbeatable conservative base failed him, not because they didn’t get out and vote but because they voted for the other guy. In all likelihood, the answer lies in some combination of causes. One factor, however, that has hardly been noticed by most of the mainstream media is the way in which the GOP’s sly, under-reported re-districting schemes backfired nationwide on November 7, resulting in Republican losses from Florida to Kansas. Greed, it seems, got the better of the GOP in the end.

2004 was a banner one for the GOP’s scissor-happy re-districters in Tom Delay’s Texas, and less prominently in Kansas as well. The second district, represented at that point by Jim Ryun, was expanded to include half of Lawrence, Kansas’ traditionally liberal bastion. And by half I mean half. The line between the second and third district, in fact, sliced right down Iowa street, splitting into equal halves the west and east sides of the town. Ridiculous as it sounds, the GOP got away with it—though it stirred up so much outrage at the time (so quickly forgotten, alas) that it almost caused the then-Attorney General Carla Stovall to postpone the August primaries. The purpose of this little maneuver was even more appalling: the third district, historically a safe haven for Democrats, was and is represented by Dennis Moore. Republicans hoped to de-Democrat his district by getting rid of some of those pesky Lawrence liberals and, at the same time, move them into the second district, where their liberal-ness would be diluted in what GOPers thought was a safe Republican district led by Ryun. On November 7, that grand plan backfired.

Not only did the GOP lose Ryun’s seat to Nancy Boyda, but Dennis Moore was re-elected. Republicans, it seems, overreached, trying to gobble up too much territory. “The trade-off in redistricting is between safety and maximizing the numbers,” explains Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “But you can’t do both.” King, Ryun and the rest of the gerrymandering pack of Republicans found this out the hard way—and not just in Kansas.

Turns out, Republican greed cost the party house seats in Florida as well. State legislators in the Sunshine State quietly transfered some Republican voters from the secure district of former Rep. Mark Foley in what blogger Sean Aqui called, “an attempt to shore up the re-election chances of Rep. Clay Shaw without risking the Foley seat.” The Democrats won both seats.

A similar story unfolded—irony of ironies—in Texas. Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay moved thousands of staunch GOP voters from his district in 2004 “to boost a neighboring seat,” says Aqui, and in doing so increased the burden on the Republican candidate trying this November to keep his spot for the GOP. She did not, however, hold on to the seat.

In the early 90s, Democrats angered Republicans with a series of re-districting measures that the GOP vowed to undo as soon as they took power. What followed, as so often happens in politics, was childish game of tit-for-tat—only, the GOP decided not just to undo the gerrymandering of the Dems, but to go much further. Texas Republican State Rep. Phil King, for instance, was blunt about GOP intentions to pad Congress with Republicans.

He, in fact, steered Texas’ recent re-districting initiatives through the state legislature, subsequently making it more or less impossible for Democrats to win in that state. “The redistricting bill was something myself and some other members had begun to work on several years earlier because we knew that it was right for Texas,” King told the BBC in 2004. “We knew that if we could add five to seven seats to the Republican numbers in Congress it would be virtually impossible for the Republicans to lose the majority in President Bush’s second term.”

Though King’s honesty is admirable, his intentions—blatant and Machiavellian—were the same despicable tactics employed by GOPers nationwide. In truth, the controversial Republican gerrymandering efforts of 2002, like those shoved through by Newt Gingrich in the 90s, were more than just re-districting. The more appropriate name for what occurred is ‘stacking the deck.’

“We drew a map that probably increased Republican seats from 15 to maybe 22 out of 32 seats in a really good year,” says King cheerfully. Sound like something out of a third-world political thriller novella? Unfortunately, Republicans have, in the last twenty years, made gerrymandering something of a political powersaw, cutting apart districts for the benefit of incumbents (GOP incumbents, mostly) all at the expense of voters and American Democracy.

Rob Ritchie, who directs the Center For Voting and Democracy, laments the fact that “one of the stark realities of our politics now is that fewer than one in ten House races is competitive today.” In 2002—the year that King and friends really got aggressive in the recent gerrymandering push—out of 435 seats, says Ritchie, “only four incumbents lost to challengers, the fewest ever in our whole history.”

If there is a lesson here, it’s that even in politics, greed catches up to the greedy. More to the point, Democrats nationwide ought to take this surprising sequence of events as a cautionary tale. If the Dems turn around and attempt to beat the GOP at its own gerrymandered game, they run the same risks. Nancy Boyda, like Nancy Pelosi, seems aware of this. Both have made ethics a top priority for the incoming Congress. Both seem keen to the fact that staying in power will depend on whether or not Democrats pursue sound, sensible policy instead of pursuing the politics of stacking the deck.

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