Back in the 1990’s Michigan had an outrageous state senator by the name of David Jaye. Jaye was sort of a mix of George Wallace, Rand Paul and Charlie Sheen. He represented far northern Macomb County, which at that time was one of the last places in Michigan an African-American would want to have to change a flat tire. Jaye’s reactionary populist politics and knack for getting press made his frequent run-ins with legislative rules and state laws a serious problem for the Michigan GOP. After repeated arrests for DUI, Jaye was caught on a security camera roughly removing his unhinged girlfriend from a gas station as she tried to lay a beating on the poor schlep working the country. That was the last straw for the Republican leadership in the Senate, so they decided to start hearings to have him expelled.
Deciding to expel Jaye was the easy part. Getting a Republican to do the deed against a proto-tea partier beloved by Michigan’s proto-tea partier GOP activist base was the hard part. But sensing an opportunity, up stepped state senate back-bencher and all around strange dude Thaddeus McCotter.
I worked in the Senate at the time, and dealt with McCotter and his office on committee work, and he’s one of the oddest personalities I’ve met in politics. He seems utterly devoid of any charm or ability to forge a personal connection with people, and doesn’t seem personally bothered by it. He doesn’t try to please others. He had gotten elected in large part because his mother was a beloved city clerk in Livonia, the anchor of his senate district. He was ambitious, and sticking a shiv in David Jaye didn’t bother him one bit.
But McCotter evidently extracted one huge concession for agreeing to chair the drum-David-Jaye-out-of-the-senate committee: he was named the chair of the redistricting committee. You know the rest of the story: oddball social misfit but a base in a large city draws map to serve his own interests, carves out district avoiding incumbents, and for the next five elections underperforms but manages to keep returning to Congress. And in doing so, he pushed a map that by 2006 left long-serving Republican Joe Knollenberg vulnerable to a strong Democrat. And in fact, in 2008 Knollenberg was defeated by McCotter’s one-time senate colleague (and someone whose 2002 AG campaign I managed), Democrat Gary Peters.
I’ve told this story as an example of the kinds of rich and complicated stories of personal and factional ambition currently playing out across the country. Sure, those in charge of the redistricting process generally try to give their party an advantage (but not always, as we saw in the “protect all the incumbents at all cost” redistricting in California in 2002). But the redistricters often don’t wring out the maximize advantage for their party because often they’re also pursuing their personal, factional or institutional interests. For example, we need not look beyond Michigan for a Thaddeus McCotter for 2012:
State Rep. Marty Knollenberg, who sits on the state House committee that is drawing new boundaries for congressional and legislative districts for the next 10 years, is planning his own run for Congress in 2012.
His likely opponent?
U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who unseated Knollenberg’s father in 2008.
The younger Knollenberg may not have the juice to create his own seat the way McCotter did 10 years ago, but pursuing his personal interests is probably an unwanted complication for the Congressional Republicans, because as Aaron Blake has shown, it’s already challenging for the Republicans to turn their control over the process in to a significant partisan advantage in Michigan.
Last time around, the Michigan Republicans were able to set Democratic incumbents against each other, leading to the retirement or primary loss of three members of Congress. This time, even though they control the process, the Republicans may not be able to protect all their incumbents, but it would probably be easier if Marty Knollenberg wasn’t diminishing their advantage by trying to draw a map especially suited for him.
Elsewhere, many Republican incumbents look likely to be paired with other incumbents in the same districts, even in places where Democrats don’t control the process. Today the commission that draws maps in Iowa released their first draft. Iowa’s going from five districts to four, and this map puts the two Republicans in the same seat. The legislature can reject the map, but eventually some non-partisan entity will come up with a map that will be implemented. With commissions taking over key parts of the redistricting process in California and Florida, incumbents of neither party get much help, but the net effect will probably be to the advantage of the Democrats.
Even in places where Republicans have complete control of the process, incumbents will find themselves unable to escape sharing a district with an incumbent of their own party. The first publicly released map in Louisiana—which like Iowa and Michigan is losing a Congressional seat—puts incumbent Republicans Charles Boustany and Jeff Landry in the same district, almost certainly doesn’t imperil the one Democratically-held seat centered in New Orleans, and thus will probably mean the Republicans lose a seat in Congress that they’ll have to pick up in some other state.
The Republicans have certainly positioned themselves well in a lot of states where Democrats had previously held complete or partial control. By drawing the maps, they could significantly change the partisan composition of several state delegations such as North Carolina and Wisconsin (provided the recall doesn’t cost the Republicans control of the senate). There are only a handful of places, such as Illinois, where the Democratic advantage could result in significant gains. But even in places where one side has the procedural means to control the outcome, the parties—yes, mainstream pundits, even the Republicans—often see their desires to maximize their partisan advantage squandered through intra-state alliances, factional differences, and two traits possessed by most successful politicians: ambition and a dogged pursuit of self-interest.