Whatever the outcome of the 6th District race, democracy wins.
Sadly, the June 20 race is kind of a unicorn. It’s the rarest of rare because it actually offers a choice between truly competing visions of America. Generally, congressional races feature contests only between moderates and the more feral extremes of their parties. This leads to the kind of hyperpartisanship in Congress that has made Atlanta’s freeways seem the picture of efficiency.
Whoever wins – Karen Handel or Jon Ossoff – he or she will go to Washington with the clear understanding that about half the district is watching suspiciously and counting the minutes until Election Day 2018. How far to the left can Ossoff drift knowing that about 100,000 voters in his district are ready and eager to pounce on him? Same thing with Handel. Maybe, just maybe, this reduces minutely the crippling partisanship in Congress. (OK, call me a dreamer.)
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that our politics could do with a little less hyperpartisanship.
Whenever we poll Georgians, we find them pretty firmly in the middle on most issues, even though they are, as a whole, on the conservative side of the traditional right-left continuum. We elected an ideologically modest governor, who has leaned toward the pragmatic whenever pushed.
Nevertheless, our electoral structure is designed – intentionally or not – to snuff pragmatism and fuel division. In most states, including Georgia, the design of congressional districts has long been weaponized. When Democrats drew the districts, they did all they could to smother Republicans. When the Republicans took over early this century, it was payback time. In that distant future when Democrats theoretically, supposedly, potentially and just maybe assume power again, their vengeance will be swift.
Good for them, bad for us.
You know this as gerrymandering, a practice as old as the Republic. To be sure, it serves victorious parties well, but it doesn’t do much for those of us who favor functioning government. It also fails to reflect the fact that most Americans are far less worried about ideological purity than the people who represent them.
At its worst, gerrymandering leads to a kind of ideological cleansing in legislative districts. Candidates in safe districts generally have no fear of the other party. They mostly worry about being “primaried” by folks from the more extreme ends of their parties. And relatively low turnouts tend to disproportionately reflect the views from the passionate folks at the far left or right.
This is part of what makes the 6th District race intriguing. Republican lawmakers who delighted in making it Democrat-proof are annoyed to see their handiwork so sorely tested.
State Sen. Fran Millar said as much to the AJC. “I’ll be very blunt: These lines were not drawn to get Hank Johnson’s protégé to be my representative. And you didn’t hear that,” Millar said. “They were not drawn for that purpose, okay? They were not drawn for that purpose.”
I gather the lines weren’t drawn for that purpose. (Johnson is from the neighboring 4th District, which, by the way, is pretty much Republican-proof.)
If I were a betting man, I’d still wager the GOP design will prevail. Democrats threw everything they could leading to Tuesday and Republicans still outpolled Ossoff. For the final round in June, they are likely to muster their troops to restore order to the empire. Based on President Trump’s robust tweeting about the race and his planned visit here this week to address the NRA convention downtown, the race has taken on epochal dimensions.
David Daley has a new book about gerrymandering called “Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy.” His book is decidedly unkind to GOP efforts to sustain the party’s hold on Congress, and Daley believes Democrats probably are kidding themselves about winning the district.
“This race has been a sugar high for Democrats,” Daley told Vox, the online news site. “But the congressional districts were drawn with deep partisan intent, and until Democrats do something about this very deep structural rot, it will be extraordinarily difficult for them to win.”
Whether it’s “rot” or just a prudent party’s doing what it must do to secure its eternal influence depends on your point of view. I’m also suspicious of anyone who suggests that Democrats aren’t counting the days until they can impose their own brand of “rot.”
And not everyone believes gerrymandering is the grand evil that authored our dysfunction. Republicans would argue that Democrats fell from favor simply because Americans don’t like them or their policies any more. Studies also blame geography, because Democrats tend to cluster in cities.
Whatever is going on, it works for the GOP, which controls legislatures in 33 states — 25 with Republican governors. They own Congress and the White House.
And if Republicans have anything to do with it, the juggernaut won’t end in the upscale Atlanta suburbs.
Shaken by the near-miss they are stirred to action.
Mark Rountree, the president of Landmark Communications, which accurately projected the outcome Tuesday told the AJC that things will return to normal on June 20. “Because it is a Republican district, if Handel can consolidate that (Republican vote), obviously she wins,” Rountree said.
This whole business of gerrymandering is on its way to the Supreme Court. In a case from Wisconsin, a bipartisan group of voting rights advocates is arguing that the legislature went beyond what is accepted even with garden variety gerrymandering to subdue Democrats.
The justices have criticized extreme partisan gerrymandering as probably unconstitutional, but they haven’t provided much clarity about what is excessive. This case could change that, so it is seen as pivotal. There are other ways to design congressional districts. Some other states already have moved away from allowing victorious parties to punish their adversaries, preferring instead to place this work in the hands of nonpartisan commissions. What an interesting idea.
But for now, we should revel in the race for the 6th. In addition to all the ugly personal smears, blatant partisan misrepresentation of the truth and countless tense dinners in divided Dunwoody homes, we may see at least a glimpses of things that matter and where these two stand on the issues.
Isn’t it pretty to think so.