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How A Political Consultant Changed Voting Districts Nationally

Jun 15, 2018
Originally published on June 15, 2018 7:05 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The midterms this fall will be shaped in part by a political strategy rolled out in 2010 by a Republican consultant. With small investments in local politics, he set off one of the biggest national political shifts in generations. Karen Duffin from our Planet Money podcast explains what happened.

KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: It was election season in the town of Blue Hill, Maine, where campaigns are pretty low-key. Jim Schatz was running for the Maine State Senate.

Is there a slogan for Jim Schatz?

JIM SCHATZ: Yeah, vote for Jim. That's about it.

DUFFIN: Pretty good.

SCHATZ: Yeah.

DUFFIN: Straightforward. I like it.

His opponent handed out a family pie recipe. Pretty typical Blue Hill campaign until something unexpected happened - this flood of negative ads targeting Jim. Like this one has a picture of a young girl...

SCHATZ: With her mouth wide open, screaming and says, this child just found out Jim Schatz canceled Fourth of July fireworks.

DUFFIN: Which he did not, by the way. These ads shocked the town. But Jim's opponent Brian Langley...

BRIAN LANGLEY: I didn't set these up. I didn't. I had no idea where they were coming from.

DUFFIN: State Republican leaders said, neither did we. Jim lost that race. And all across America that fall, many local candidates were surprised like this, which can be pinned mostly on one guy - Chris Jankowski. He is a longtime Republican consultant. One Sunday in 2009, Chris was reading the newspaper.

CHRIS JANKOWSKI: Of course, I have to admit I read The New York Times. But I did.

DUFFIN: The article talked about demographic shifts that might force states to redraw their electoral maps. And whoever draws electoral maps to some extent controls elections because drawn one way, you elect Democrat, drawn a different way, a Republican. And drawn carefully, maps can nearly guarantee a party a win. It's called gerrymandering. Both parties do it. The people who draw these maps in America - for the most part it's state legislators, people in positions like the one Jim Schatz in Maine was running for.

So reading The New York Times shamefully, Chris had an epiphany. Oh, state politicians, they wield massive power over national elections. And he raised $30 million to influence hundreds of campaigns across the country that turned on hyperlocal issues. In Pennsylvania, he targeted an unpopular library, in Maine, those fireworks. In Kentucky, he ran ads of an incumbent state senator.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Mike Reynolds, wrong for Kentucky.

DUFFIN: Chris did this all the way up to Election Day. And then he waited to see if it would work.

JANKOWSKI: It was historic even beyond what REDMAP's goals were.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The Pennsylvania House has flipped.

Michigan House has flipped.

The Ohio House has flipped.

The Iowa House has flipped.

Wisconsin.

The Texas House of Representatives.

The Montana House has flipped.

DUFFIN: With just $30 million, Republicans gained 700 state legislative seats and ended up with control of both state houses in 25 states, half the country. Which was exciting, but for Chris...

JANKOWSKI: The 2010 election was the beginning, not the end. For me, it's all about what happened after REDMAP.

DUFFIN: Over the next few years, Republican state legislatures started to draw maps in their favor. And in 2012, while Democratic candidates got 1.1 million more votes overall, Republicans dominated the House with a 33-seat majority. And if people say to Chris, look; this isn't fair, he says...

JANKOWSKI: I don't feel bad. I do not feel bad. I don't apologize. I mean, there are so many variables in a given election. It's troubling to me that people just want to say, boom, you've undermined democracy.

DUFFIN: Chris points to the 2018 midterms, says, look; the Democrats have a shot at retaking the House this fall. If maps alone undermine democracy, how could that be possible? And all of this, it is legal in most states - for now at least. The Supreme Court heard two cases on partisan gerrymandering this term. Their opinions will be issued later this month. And if the court does outlaw partisan gerrymandering, the country's elections could once again be turned upside down. For NPR News, I'm Karen Duffin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.