#845: REDMAP Meet the man who figured out how to reshape national politics by making tiny investments in the smallest of places.
NPR logo

#845: REDMAP

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/616212383/617238496" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
#845: REDMAP

#845: REDMAP

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/616212383/617238496" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:

In the fall of 2010, something unexpected happened in Blue Hill, Maine - a town where unexpected things rarely happen. It is a small town, about 2,600 people tucked into the Maine coast.

JIM SCHATZ: It's a beautiful and yet isolated place. So you have to kind of go out of your way to get here.

DUFFIN: This is Jim Schatz who lives in Blue Hill. Jim is friendly, soft-spoken, the kind of guy who would quietly do your dishes after a party. In fact, when we met, he had just helped cook a town Mother's Day brunch.

SCHATZ: And hopefully you had a chance to have brunch. Did you get there in time?

DUFFIN: Sadly, I had just eaten.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Anyway, in 2010, when a Maine State Senate seat came open, Jim decided that he was going to go for it.

SCHATZ: I thought I had a really good chance. I thought I would win.

KING: Jim's opponent was a Republican named Brian Langley. Brian is also very friendly but in more of a polo shirt neatly tucked in, firm handshake, soundbite kind of way.

BRIAN LANGLEY: I say don't be an activist. Be just active in your community.

KING: That is Brian. His campaign strategy...

LANGLEY: I'll give out like 5,000 blueberry pie recipes at the Bar Harbor parade.

KING: He says his pie recipe has won him more votes than his political views. He puts it on the back of his campaign flyers.

DUFFIN: And Jim, on the Democrat side, revved up the marketing strategy that had won him eight elections before this.

So is there a slogan for Jim Schatz?

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

DUFFIN: It's straightforward. I like it.

And since everyone there generally knows everyone, campaigns are pretty low-key - more pie than politics. But in the fall of 2010, out of nowhere, these ads started showing up.

SCHATZ: They hit the streets - bam, bam, bam - and on television. It was just - bam - out there.

DUFFIN: So Jim showed me a few of these ads. The first one was just like this 8-by-10 flyer. It has an American flag on it with Jim's picture in the middle. And it says...

SCHATZ: Baseball, apple pie, Fourth of July, and fireworks - not this Fourth of July. Jim Schatz had had other priorities.

DUFFIN: Someone was accusing Jim of, like, canceling America - well, at least the fireworks. But it gets worse. The next flyer he shows me is a picture of this really sad young girl, maybe 6 years old...

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

KING: And part of this is true. Blue Hill had canceled its Fourth of July celebration. And Jim did have a say in the matter. He's in Blue Hill's local government. But...

SCHATZ: I did not vote to get rid of it.

DUFFIN: Jim was actually the only person who voted to keep the fireworks.

SCHATZ: And so it just was totally misleading.

KING: But this was an election. So when you see something like that, you just point to the other side. In this case, that would be Brian Langley, the Republican with the blueberry pie.

LANGLEY: I didn't set these up I didn't. I have no idea where they were coming from - I was just sort of blindsided.

DUFFIN: So he calls up a bigwig in the main state Republican party and asks, do you know who did this? And they do some research and come back to Brian and say, it wasn't us. In fact, we don't think it was anybody in Maine. And Brian is afraid that these ads are actually going to hurt him because in Blue Hill this kind of negative campaigning just doesn't fly. So he turns around, buys his own new set of ads - just to say, those negative ads, I had nothing to do with that.

KING: So now Brian's platform is basically, I like the guy I'm running against. I like Jim.

DUFFIN: But sadly for Jim, it was just too late.

SCHATZ: It was all over basically. I don't know. So it was sad.

DUFFIN: It was the first time since 1992 that a Republican won that district.

SCHATZ: When Tip O'Neill said all politics are local, now it's not local. It's coming from people who have nothing to do with the local.

DUFFIN: And in the aftermath, the town was left with a very big question. If Brian didn't do this, and the state Republican party didn't, who inserted themselves in this localist of local elections and why?

(SOUNDBITE OF RAPHAEL CHASSIN & LAURENT VERNEREY'S "CADILLAC ATTACK")

KING: Brian and Jim didn't know it that fall in Maine, but they had gotten wrapped up in one of the most brilliant political schemes of our time.

DUFFIN: Hello. And welcome to PLANET MONEY. I am Karen Duffin.

KING: And I'm Noel King. Today on the show, we meet the man who took the idea that all politics are local to the bank.

DUFFIN: By making a tiny investment in the smallest of places, he set in motion one of the biggest political shifts in generations - one that would shape elections not just in Maine but all across the country for years to come, including the midterms this fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAPHAEL CHASSIN & LAURENT VERNEREY'S "CADILLAC ATTACK")

DUFFIN: To get to the bottom of what happened in Maine, in that fall of 2010...

CHRIS JANKOWSKI: I mean, you have to turn the clock back into the '80s and to the early '90s.

DUFFIN: This is Chris Jankowski. He is a longtime Republican operative. And back in the 1990s, he had just graduated from law school and started working in the South Carolina attorney general's office at a really unique moment for state politics.

JANKOWSKI: I was there as a young assistant attorney general during the tobacco litigation.

DUFFIN: The tobacco litigation. It was 1998, and the tobacco industry paid out an historic settlement. They were finally forced to account. And it wasn't the federal government who did it. It wasn't Congress. It was state politicians uniting together.

JANKOWSKI: That was the first sort of collective effort of state attorney generals to make a national impact.

KING: This moment was an epiphany for Chris. It changed the direction of his life. And eventually it changed the direction of the entire country.

DUFFIN: Chris saw that states acting together can wield a ton of collective national power, which is just not how people were viewing state politics at the time.

JANKOWSKI: It really is sort of considered the junior varsity.

KING: He took a new job working for the insurance lobby. And insurance is mostly regulated at the state level, so Chris is learning all the wonky mechanics of state politics.

DUFFIN: And while he's toiling away at the state level on a shoestring budget, he sees all this money being thrown at national efforts in D.C. and doesn't see a lot of progress. And he starts thinking...

JANKOWSKI: If they would just give me 10 percent of what they were spending federally, I swear I could, you know, have an impact.

KING: This untapped potential of state power, it grows from an epiphany into sort of a chip on Chris's shoulder. And eventually he leaves insurance lobbying. And along with a few state-friendly colleagues, he decides to start his own group...

JANKOWSKI: And focus just on states. And let's call it the Republican State Leadership Committee.

KING: The RSLC. So now it's 2002. And these guys start working on individual state elections and state issues. And all the while, they're looking for their tobacco moment - something big that all the states together can get behind.

DUFFIN: And they've been doing this for a couple of years when one Sunday in 2009 Chris opens the newspaper.

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

DUFFIN: And reading The New York Times shamefully...

JANKOWSKI: I said, wow, I'm reading a national congressional story that really is about my world.

DUFFIN: The article talked about major demographic shifts that would likely show up in the 2010 census and reshape the elections. And his mind just starts churning.

KING: OK, you might remember this from history class. Every 10 years, the Constitution says we have to do a census. We have to count up all the people in the United States. And then we have to divide everyone up equally-ish into 435 congressional districts. Every district has the same number of people and gets to elect one representative to the U.S. House. That is equal representation.

DUFFIN: And so every 10 years after the census, states will often have to redraw their maps to adjust for population shifts.

KING: Yeah, like a bunch of people leave Kansas. They move to Missouri. The map changes.

DUFFIN: Right. So maybe Missouri gets another congressional seat. Kansas loses one. And both states would have to redraw their maps to account for that. And redrawn districts reshape elections because when you draw the lines - when you draw the maps, you are basically choosing which voters are going to end up in a district. You draw them one way, and the district will send a Democrat to Congress. And drawing a different way might send a Republican. And districts drawn carefully can nearly guarantee a party a win for maybe even the next decade.

KING: This is called gerrymandering. And both parties do it every chance they get.

DUFFIN: So Chris puts down his New York Times - probably hides it deep in his trash can - and thinks, I found my issue. This is a way for states to wield massive power.

KING: Because remember Jim and Brian who were running for state senate in Maine - people like them control this process. For the most part, state legislatures draw the national maps. So redistricting is like this secret superpower of state politics. The local controls the national.

DUFFIN: So Chris concocts this plan. Flip state legislatures red, and they will turn the national maps red - long-term results for a bargain.

KING: He calls the plan REDMAP.

DUFFIN: And what does REDMAP stand for?

JANKOWSKI: Oh, this one always stumps me.

DUFFIN: Really? I feel like this should be the easiest question I've asked you so far.

JANKOWSKI: It's the Redistrict Republican - it's the Redistricting Majority Project - Redistricting Majority Project.

DUFFIN: He did get it right. It is the Redistricting Majority Project. And Chris just knows that his plan will work. But for it to work, he needs money. And he knows, from past experience, that selling a state-level plan for Republican domination might be tough.

It feels like you're trying to fundraise for, like, an off-off-Broadway show. And everybody else wants to invest in, like, "Hamilton."

JANKOWSKI: Exactly.

KING: So he makes it really simple. He goes right to the heart of the matter - money. He does some cost analysis. And it shows that...

JANKOWSKI: In many cases, a dollar goes much farther in terms of impacting a congressional seat if you spend it on a state legislative seat.

KING: So not only could this plan work, it is a huge bargain. So Chris starts dialing for dollars.

JANKOWSKI: Sir, you're wasting a ton of money every year on congressional races. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. For 25 cents on the dollar, I can take 25 congressional seats off the table for the next 10 years.

KING: And slowly at first, the money starts coming in from individual donors and then later from corporations. Chris eventually ends up with more than $30 million.

JANKOWSKI: I just shook my head. I just can't believe it.

KING: And $30 million, that amount of money might barely make a dent in most national elections. But Chris thinks that he can win hundreds of state elections for that much.

DUFFIN: But there's a reason that no one had ever redmapped (ph) - or bluemapped (ph) - before, which is there are 7,383 local state legislative seats. You got to figure out which of those seats you're going to target, and then you have to influence hundreds of campaigns that turn on hyperlocal issues, like in Maine with the fireworks.

KING: But then Chris realizes, you know what, figuring out which seats to go after, for the most part, that's actually sort of just a math problem.

JANKOWSKI: We used data and objective research. We didn't have to actually meet the candidates to know what we could do.

KING: And this math problem has basically two parts. It's a two-part analysis. Part One - identify which states might gain or lose a congressional seat after the next census because of demographic shifts, like we talked about. Those states, if they lost or gained a seat, they would definitely have to draw new maps.

JANKOWSKI: So we prioritize those states, and we came up with rough budgets for what it would take to take control or maintain control.

KING: So at this point, they've narrowed it down to 18 potential states.

DUFFIN: And this leads to Part Two. You calculate the cost to turn each state's legislature red. Now, that is not a simple calculation.

JANKOWSKI: To explain it, it's pretty painful.

KING: It has to do with how many voters you need to reach in order to flip a seat. So Chris runs the numbers, and he figures out which states to target and how many seats in that state. And he starts spending money on things like, maybe he'll buy ads, maybe he'll give the money to the state party so they can spend it on their local races.

DUFFIN: And this is way more money than you normally see in local elections, like that race in Maine that we talked about. Chris spent four times as much money on that race in 2010 than the candidates had two years before.

KING: But now comes the really hard part - how to win over 200 elections that turn on hyperlocal issues.

JANKOWSKI: That really had never been done before at that level. And that's - that takes execution, you know?

KING: And he got really good at figuring out what the hot-button local issues were. Like in Kentucky, they paid to air these secretly recorded tapes of a state senator calling his constituents rednecks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE REYNOLDS: Excuse my French, but my redneck constituency out here, you know...

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

KING: And in Pennsylvania, they insinuated that a Democratic incumbent had spent $600 million on an unpopular library.

DUFFIN: Do you remember the most kind of obscure local issue that you invested in?

JANKOWSKI: There was someone who sat on a town council who had voted to cancel the fireworks display.

KING: So Ohio gets a million dollars to target six seats. Michigan, also a million dollars, but to go after 20 seats. For four seats in New York...

JANKOWSKI: We spent about $1.4 million.

KING: And the money kept flowing in, all the way up until Election Day. And then all Chris could do was wait. Would his bet pay off?

DUFFIN: Tell me about election night.

JANKOWSKI: We had a war room set up, although I really hate that term.

KING: So it's election night, Nov. 2, 2010. And Chris and his team are sitting around the conference table in their offices. They have their laptops open. And they are tracking state election results basically by hand because, at that point...

JANKOWSKI: You can't turn on CNN and figure out who's winning control of the Iowa House - state House.

DUFFIN: Right.

JANKOWSKI: So we all had contacts on the ground, and we started tracking them.

DUFFIN: Michigan.

KING: Ohio.

DUFFIN: New York.

KING: Texas.

DUFFIN: Maine.

KING: A bunch of others.

JANKOWSKI: Everyone was assigned states to track. We had a spreadsheet.

KING: They huddled in that war room all night.

JANKOWSKI: I think around 5 a.m., I walked across the street to my hotel, tried to sleep for about 45 minutes, showered, came back. And the great thing about state legislative races, it's like having two Christmases back to back because you have election night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Pennsylvania House has flipped.

Michigan House has flipped.

The Ohio House has flipped.

The Iowa House has flipped.

Wisconsin.

The Texas House.

The Maine Senate has flipped.

Tennessee Republicans.

The Montana House has flipped.

JANKOWSKI: And then you have the next day because election results just keep coming in.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Today for Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hello and good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: State capitals across the country will be more Republican than at any point since the Roaring '20s when Victorian...

JANKOWSKI: I knew by Wednesday afternoon that it was historic, even beyond what REDMAP's goals were.

KING: And the entire country was buzzing about how the Republicans had taken back the House because of the Tea Party revolution and backlash against Obamacare. And Chris is like, yeah, that is exciting. But what is more exciting is that the Republicans had also just gained nearly 700 state legislative seats. They flipped 21 state Houses from Democrat to Republican. So they ended up with majorities in both state legislative chambers in 25 states, which meant that they would entirely own the redistricting process in half the country. Chris had his eye on the long game.

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

KING: What happened was redistricting. Over the next couple of years, one by one, Republican state legislatures did start to draw the map so they'd work in their favor. They were helped by very sophisticated technology that lets you gerrymander down to the last alleyway, down to the last house. And these new REDMAPs did their job. In 2012, Democratic House candidates got 1.1 million more votes overall, but Republicans dominated the House with a 33-seat majority. In Pennsylvania, Republicans got about half the votes. So you'd think they'd get about half the seats. But no, they got nearly three-quarters of the seats. And over the next two election cycles, these reliably swing states, like Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan, their congressional seats stopped swinging. The JV team was picking the varsity team. So now, in many states, it's more like politicians pick their voters than voters pick their representatives.

DUFFIN: Yeah, I don't feel totally great about that. Do you know what I mean? Because, like, it's brilliant, but it's not something that everybody is comfortable with 'cause this kind of locks down the democracy in a way that doesn't feel like democracy.

JANKOWSKI: Well, I don't feel bad. I'm asked that quite often. I do not feel bad. I don't apologize. I mean, there's so many variables in a given election. It's troubling to me that people just want to say, boom, this was bad. You've undermined democracy.

KING: Chris points to the 2018 midterms. He says, look, the Democrats have a shot at retaking the House this fall. If these maps really undermine democracy, how could that be possible? He also points out...

JANKOWSKI: Anybody could have done it. Democrats could have done it. I'm still not sure why they didn't.

KING: This is a mistake that the Democrats do not plan to repeat. They now have their own big plans for 2020. We're not going to call it bluemapping (ph), but...

DUFFIN: Right.

KING: And, look, this is legal. Partisan gerrymandering is legal in every single state except two of them, although...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: You'll hear argument first this morning in case 16-1161, Gill v. Whitford.

KING: That could change - maybe. The Supreme Court did pick up two cases this year about partisan gerrymandering, which is an issue they have mostly avoided before this. They've said, you know, how do we even measure how much partisanship is too much because, you know, elections are inherently partisan? The Supreme Court is looking at this now because states started to answer that question. They started to gin up mathematical formulas to measure partisanship and also because this is only likely going to get worse, which may be why the lawyer's arguments sort of sounded like a desperate cry for help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We're here telling you, you are the only institution in the United States that can do - that can solve this problem.

KING: And the court is deciding right now, actually, if they will be the institution to solve it. Their opinions will be issued this month. And if the Supreme Court does step in and set a standard, it could turn the country's maps, and thus the elections, upside down. If they don't...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: If you let this go, if you say this is - we're not going to have a judicial remedy for this problem, in 2020, you're going to have a festival of copycat gerrymandering, the likes of which this country has never seen.

KING: So in 2020, we could be looking at varsity gerrymandering. Except this time, both teams are suited up.

On the next PLANET MONEY, gerrymandering meets its match. The battle for democracy continues, but this time with a very different outcome.

DUFFIN: We always love to hear what you think of the show. We post a link to every episode on Facebook. You can find us there and comment. You can also find us on Twitter and Instagram, @planetmoney, or you can e-mail us - planetmoney@npr.org.

KING: Today's show was produced by Sally Helm and Aviva DeKornfeld. Our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark. Bryant Urstadt edits the show. Special thanks to Kelly Ward, Michael McDonald, Carol Kuniholm and the excellent book by David Daley about this topic. We put a link to it on our website. I'm Noel King.

DUFFIN: And I'm Karen Duffin. Thanks for listening.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.