Gerrymandering means nobody has to get along

March 12, 2013 

Rep. Renee Ellmers as she appears on the Club For Growth's website

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers’ political opponents are gunning for her.

The Harnett County Republican appears on a website with other political targets, her picture rendered in black-and-white with her mouth open, a time-honored trick in political ads to make someone seem goofy or untrustworthy. The effort against Ellmers will be national, and by the 2014 mid-term elections, possibly millions will be spent to try to dislodge her from her seat in the 2nd Congressional district after three terms.

You might assume her opponents are Democrats. She has some of those, too. But the biggest threat to Ellmers will come from her fellow Republicans.

The conservative Club For Growth, a zero-tolerance, virulently anti-tax group, has deemed that Ellmers is no longer one of the herd. She has earned the dreaded appellation “RINO,” meaning Republican In Name Only.

At its website, PrimaryMyCongressman.com, the club even uses a rhinoceros image to decorate the page about Ellmers, whose conservative rating by another group, the American Conservative Union, is 91 (out of 100).

The Club For Growth page documents her sins: Among them, voting to increase the debt ceiling in 2011; voting for a budget that included funding for the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, which was already law by then; and voting against cuts to the National Park System.

Perhaps unintentionally, the anti-Ellmers page also highlights why it’s so hard to get anything done in Washington and why it seems Congress since 2010 has lurched from crisis to crisis.

Many representatives are in districts drawn in a way they can’t lose – unless they run afoul of their own party. Thus they have little incentive to reach across the aisle to the other party, which is a sure-fire way to get their own party mad at them.

And many Congress folks seem to associate losing their seats as akin to death.

When the specter of losing his Senate seat in a primary reared its ugly head in 2010, John McCain abandoned his long-held advocacy of comprehensive immigration reform and started running TV ads in which he said the goal of reform should be to “complete the danged fence.”

With his seat safely secured, McCain has drifted back to his original position.


In this environment of fear, you can see how gerrymandering to create safe districts leads to gridlock.

In the U.S. House, too many districts are drawn in a way to almost guarantee that one party always wins, either Republican or Democrat.

Ellmers was elected as a tea party candidate in the GOP wave of 2010. That same year, a Census year, the new Republican majority in the N.C. General Assembly got to redraw the maps for U.S. congressional districts. Their goal was to send more Republicans to Congress and fewer Democrats.

North Carolina is a purple state that narrowly voted for President Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. Our previous congressional delegation reflected this close split, with seven Democrats and six Republicans going to D.C.

But with the redrawing, the 2012 elections yielded nine Republicans and four Democrats – despite the fact that the Democratic candidates earned more actual votes. Put another way, Democratic House candidates earned 51 percent of the vote, but the party will have only 31 percent representation in Washington. This is as fine a specimen of pure gerrymandering as you’ll ever see and not exactly democratic (small “d”).

One consequence of the redrawing was to put Ellmers in a safe and snug bright-red district where it will be tough for her to lose to a Democrat.

But as the Club For Growth website makes clear, that does not mean Ellmers is on easy street. She has to constantly peer over her right shoulder at potential tea party challengers who are willing to be more extremist and hard-headed than she. From a purely political sense, she has no reason to work with Obama and the Democrats on anything.

Most representatives in her position simply toe the tea party line and wait to coast to victory next election. Ellmers was thrown off this safe course when party officials in the House began grooming her for top leadership. She’s quite photogenic and appears on TV a lot, often in the background in shots that feature Speaker of the House John Boehner and Eric Cantor, House majority leader.

But with leadership comes responsibility. She is expected to take tough votes that are unpopular with the GOP rank-and-file in order to break the numerous logjams with Democrats. Compromise makes Washington work but in today’s partisan environment is often perceived as betrayal.

To say that big money makes this problem worse is to severely understate it, especially since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that loosed huge corporate spending onto the political landscape.

The only way We the People can remedy this problem of gerrymandering is to push for nonpartisan drawing of congressional districts. It sounds impossible, because the party in power, whether Democrat or Republican, would never go for it.

That’s why the people must press the case strongly – and hold future candidates for office accountable on whether they support nonpartisan districts.

MCT Information Services

Myron B. Pitts is a columnist at the Fayetteville Observer.

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