Former attorney general Eric Holder Jr. made an urgent appeal to Democrats Thursday to focus more attention on state elections, as he framed the coming battle over redrawing congressional districts as a pivotal fight in the effort to rescue the party from an era of Republican-dominated governance.
“Presidential elections are obviously important, but we lost sight of the fact that if you want to have a representative in Congress, you’ve got to make sure that you have state legislatures that are drawing districts that will yield a representative in Congress,” said Holder.
Putting his own twist on a gripe President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly trumpeted during his campaign, Holder asserted that the “biggest rigged system in America is gerrymandering.”
The former top prosecutor made his remarks during an appearance at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, where he formally launched the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. With Holder as its chair, the group will aim to influence the way districts are carved out after the 2020 Census.
Currently, no comparable Democratic groups exists. Republicans have been deploying hefty resources to state politics for years through national initiatives like the billionaire Koch brothers’ vast political network. President Barack Obama, who is not only a former boss but a friend of Holder, intends to put some of his post-presidential weight behind the NDRC’s efforts.
The organization’s launch comes at a low moment for Democrats. They are confronting deep uncertainty about their party’s future and faced with a daunting rebuilding project. A string of stinging electoral defeats has diminished their ranks in governor’s mansions and state legislatures in recent years.
On top of that, Republicans will assume control of both the White House and Congress next week when Trump is sworn in.
Holder said his organization’s strategy will focus on three areas: making electoral gains in governor’s races and other state contests relevant to redistricting, arming Democrats with the legal firepower for court fights over maps and trying to affect the ballot initiatives that will affect the new maps.
The push will face tests this year in the Virginia’s governor’s race and possible special state legislative elections in North Carolina, which Holder identified as early priorities for the committee.
In most states, the drawing of congressional and state legislative maps falls upon state legislatures, with governors also having a say in the final product. After the election, Republicans control 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships, according to a tally from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Democrats acknowledge that Republican success in state elections leading up to the redistricting conducted after the 2010 Census helped them grab and cement their control of the U.S. House. The GOP currently holds a 241-194 advantage over Democrats.
“I think what we are seeing now is gerrymandering on steroids,” said Holder.
In addition to the challenges Democrats face in state races and the U.S. House, they are at serious risk of becoming a smaller minority in the U.S. Senate during the 2018 midterms.
Twenty-five Democrats senators face reelection, compared to just eight Republicans. Adding to their challenge: some Democratic senators are up in ruby red states that Trump won.
The battle for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination could also be bruising affair for the party, as there is currently no clear frontrunner.
But Holder encouraged Democrats to keep their heads up. “This is not the time for despair and retreat,” he said.
The Republican National Committee and Trump transition team didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Holder’s remarks or his new initiative.
The NDRC is organized as a 527 group under the tax code. Kelly Ward, a veteran Democratic operative who spent the past four years helming the House Democrats’ campaign arm, is serving as the interim executive director of the committee. The NDRC board consists of strategists with experience in state legislative and gubernatorial contests.
Democrats don’t expect much in the way of partnership from the incoming administration on voting matters, which will add to the already daunting scope of their task. Both stylistically and on policy, there are clear differences between Holder and Trump.
During a question-and-answer portion of his talk Thursday, Holder chided Trump over his criticism of the media at a Wednesday press conference.
“‘I’m not answering your questions. You’re fake news’,”quipped Holder in response to a question from CNN that echoed Trump’s dismissal of the news organization on Wednesday.
On a more serious note, Holder said he is not expecting to be able to work closely with the Trump administration on voting issues due to stark differences in their philosophies.
“I’d certainly look for opportunities to work with the incoming administration, but I’m not going to be naive,” Holder said. “I don’t think that their views are going to be consistent with ours.”
He added: “Miracles happen, I suppose. But I wouldn’t be banking on that.”