Poster Boy For Dysfunction: Redistricting and Citizens United in the Texas 27th (The Huffington Post)


Texas' 27th Congressional District offers a perfect rebuttal to those trying to pretend that gerrymandering and big money did not play a huge role in the recent government shutdown and gridlock in Washington in general.

There is no doubt that our nation remains closely and starkly divided in our political views. Certainly "demographic sorting," partisan news outlets, and north/south and urban/rural divides are among the factors playing significant roles in the current polarized politics but redistricting and the flood of money unleashed by the Supreme Court's ill-advised Citizen United decision are key contributors to the dysfunction that has gripped Washington by the throat.

They are not the culprits in every congressional race or even in the majority of them, but the odds increase exponentially if the race might be competitive. Control of the House in recent years has rested on about 10 percent of races. Those 30 to 45 competitive contests determine what goes on or doesn't go on in Washington. The 27th congressional district in Texas is one of those races and stands as a testament to the corrosive impacts of gerrymandering and the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision.

From 1983-2010, Congressman Solomon Ortiz, a moderate Latino Democrat, represented the 27th congressional district. Described by Politico as "a fair-minded advocate who works easily with both Republicans and Democrats when making policy," he often sided with Republicans when it came to social issues while joining with Democrats on economic ones.

In 2000, many Texas Democrats were gerrymandered out of their seats and either lost their elections or retired before they even took place. Ortiz was one of the lucky Democratic few whose seat was gerrymandered to be a safe Democratic seat. His district was an astounding 71.6 percent Hispanic, 24.2 percent White/Anglo and 2.2 percent Black/African-American. Going into the 2010 election, the district was considered safe for the Democrat. President Obama won the district in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote, and Nate Silver, formerly of FiveThirtyEight fame, had the district as leaning Democratic. He put Ortiz's chances of reelection at 76 percent. Ortiz enjoyed incumbency, more money, and favorable demographics.

But the 2010 off-year election proved to be a difficult year for Democrats all across the country. The general unpopularity of the sitting president, combined with the rise of the conservative Tea Party movement resulted in a landslide for Republicans.

The race for the 27th was actually not close until the end. The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back in the Texas 27th apparently was a late surge in outside spending against Rep. Ortiz. Conservative groups, most prominently the 60 Plus Association, ran last-minute TV ads to unseat the incumbent. In an election where Democrats lost dozens of seats and control of the House, Ortiz lost by fewer than 800 votes to Blake Farenthold, a Tea Party Republican from Corpus Christi who served as a "side kick" on a conservative talk radio program. Given the obvious advantages Ortiz enjoyed, his loss in 2010 was a shock -- even in a year when the Democrats went down in flames.

The Houston Chronicle reported that this $156,000 TV blitz represented nearly one-fifth of what Ortiz spent during the entire year. The spending, significant in a small media market one-tenth the size of Houston or Dallas, was enabled by the Citizens United decision that "made it easier for corporations and unions to spend money in elections."

The outside money being dumped into the Ortiz-Farenthold race was also noted contemporaneously by the Texas Observer in a November 2 article, "Will Corporate Ads Help Sink Solomon Ortiz? Drug company front group attacks Democrat over health care bill." The piece described the situation this way:

Until recently, Blake Farenthold wasn't given much of a chance to win his race against Democrat Solomon Ortiz, who's represented Corpus Christi in Congress since 1982. But grassroots Tea Party activists have helped make the race competitive. And, now, last-minute corporate-funded ads may put Farenthold over the top. [bold added]

... Since the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, third-party groups like this can raise and spend corporate funds on elections -- as long as the expenditures aren't coordinated with campaigns.

... So in Texas' 27th Congressional District, we have a front group that may be using hundreds of thousands in drug company money to unseat a congressman who voted for the health care reform bill, which the drug companies certainly didn't like, and to replace him with a novice Republican who might repeal the bill.

... If Farenthold does pull the upset, the Tea Party will likely get the credit. But corporate interests will have made the difference. [bold added]

So just who was the 60 Plus Association and what role did it play in this seat switch for the 27th? The 60 Plus Association is a 501(c)(4) that bills itself as "the conservative alternative to the AARP. Its founding head was James L. Martin who formerly worked for the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC). According to Slate, "the source of 60 Plus' millions remains a 'mystery.'" 60 Plus issued a press release in 2010 stating it had spent $10 million on TV ads in 2010 targeting House and Senate members who supported health care legislation. The contact person for 60 Plus on the 2010 release was Carl Forti, now the political director of Karl Rove's American Crossroads Super PAC.

After the 2010 elections when it came time to draw the congressional district lines for the next decade, the state's Republicans, secure in holding most of the districts, focused on solidifying their hold on the Texas congressional delegation. Of the three seats that the Texas Republicans picked up from Democrats in 2010, only two of them were at all close. Republicans decided to make one of them -- the Texas 27th -- safe for 2012 and to pour money into the other one -- Texas 23rd -- in hope of keeping that one in the Republican camp as well.

As a result of the lines, the Texas 27th has morphed into another solidly Republican district. In addition to the geographic differences, the demographic breakdown was significantly different from the original district. The Hispanic/Latino population dropped from almost 72 percent to 49 percent, and the White/Anglo population jumped to 42 percent from 24 percent.

The end result is that now Rep. Farenthold has a safe seat in Congress for the next decade, certainly insulated from Democratic challenge in the general election.

As a Tea Party Republican, it is not surprising that Rep. Farenthold has taken positions considered to the right of mainstream politics. In August of this year, Rep. Farenthold called for the president to be impeached on the grounds that his birth certificate was a fake. More recently, Rep. Farenthold was a strong supporter in the House Republican Conference of shutting down the government over the Affordable Care Act. When asked about the shutdown, he told KRISTV.COM that the stalemate in Washington was necessary to achieve party goals. "I feel like my mandate when I was elected was to go reduce the size of government, lower taxes, and increase freedom, and freedom isn't free, and sometimes you have to make a small sacrifice to move forward with what you're after."

In this new, safer district, the likelihood of a primary challenge to Rep. Farenthold in 2014 is slim. Given his positions, however, there is likely to be little daylight between Rep. Farenthold and another Tea Party challenger. A challenge from the middle by a more moderate Republican candidate currently appears unlikely.

The Texas 27th congressional district is just one story of how Citizens United and redistricting are having an impact on our politics, but it is an illustrative story nonetheless. If a seat is competitive it is going to see a flood of outside anonymous money and odds are it either has been or will be gerrymandered or both.

Partisan gridlock in Washington is not new. Neither is gerrymandering. Here is what is new. Gerrymandering has reached new heights as technology has allowed every more precise line drawing and the courts have chosen to sit on the sidelines. The constraints on huge sums of money from corporations and wealthy individuals have almost been eliminated. Money from anonymous sources is pouring into key elections and playing a crucial role in both outcomes and political discourse.

In the fall of 2013, the country was barely able to stave off disaster with an eleventh-hour deal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. New drop-dead deadlines loom early in the New Year. There is no reason to expect that the current dysfunction will improve without new reforms.

What happened in the Texas 27th is an object lesson in gerrymandering and big money run amok. Greater transparency in the redistricting process and independent redistricting commissions like the one created in California are the first steps to moving forward. And Congress should not only pass updated campaign disclosure laws, but also laws to address the ills of a campaign finance system that is dangerously tilted in favor of the wealthiest in our country.

Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business. This opinion piece originally ran in The Huffington Post on November 26, 2013. To read it at The Huffington Post, click here.