Documents outline plans by top GOP strategists to exploit the creation of “majority-minority” seats and ensure redistricting dominance.
In court and in public, many top Republicans have denied gerrymandering gives them any advantage at all. They’ve captured state legislatures and won an edge in Congress, some have suggested, due to superior candidates, better campaigns, and natural geographic sorting that clusters Democrats in urban areas and spreads Republicans more efficiently across the suburbs and rural America.
“The problem is not district lines; the problem is weak candidates who run poor campaigns based on bad ideas,” said Chris West, spokesperson for former Virginia Speaker of the House William Howell, in 2017.
“We have better candidates, better issues and a better understanding of what our constituents want to do,” Wisconsin state Rep. Kathleen Bernier told the Wall Street Journal in the same year.
In a trove of never before published memos and emails, however, GOP leaders come clean: Their nationwide advantage in state legislatures and Congress is built on gerrymandering. And top Republican strategists and political operatives admit to weaponizing racial data and the Voting Rights Act in order to flip the South red and tilt electoral maps in their direction.
Those are among the revelations from over 70,000 documents, maps, and emails, obtained by The Intercept, that were culled from the hard drive backups of the late redistricting mastermind Thomas Hofeller. Though the exact purpose or destination — and sometimes even the author — of each memo is not always clear, the thinking revealed in the documents and drafts is illuminating. Some appear to be regular updates for Republican leadership, top stakeholders, and key donors.
They offer additional insights into the Republican’s 2010 Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, strategy — a $30 million push to capture swing-state legislative chambers ahead of the decennial redistricting — and new evidence that the GOP viewed these maps as the firewall that allowed them to retain control of the U.S. House and multiple state legislatures despite the 2012 Democratic wave.
The title of one late 2012 memo makes it clear: “RNC Redistricting Program Underpins GOP Success in U.S. House and State Legislatures.” That memo appears to have been written by Hofeller himself. Also, in 2011, strategists boasted that the “energy and resources poured into last year’s legislative races are paying large dividends in the ongoing redistricting process,” and that “the tide of victory” helps “increase our control” over new maps.
Perhaps most importantly, some memos explicitly state the connections between race and redistricting, and say that Republican strategists working with the highest level of the national party sought to exploit the creation of “majority-minority” seats as part of a strategy to both pack black voters into a limited number of seats and equate Democrats and minorities in the minds of white voters, especially across the South.
A December 2014 memo from the redistricting firm co-founded by Hofeller, Geographic Strategies, states that “the GOP’s success in redistricting actually had its genesis in a decade-long struggle in the federal court system beginning in the 1980s.” It appears to be addressed to the leadership of the Republican National Committee. Geographic Strategies was contracted by the RNC over much of this decade for more than $22,000 a month in legal work, mapmaking, and litigation advice from Hofeller and his partner, Dale Oldham.
Republicans could benefit, the unusually candid memo maintained, through clever application of the Voting Rights Act and the creation of black and Latino districts where possible. It provides a startlingly frank discussion of the GOP’s modern Southern strategy, and the primary role played by race and redistricting, especially following the 1982 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.
Black and Latino voter representation increased under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which allowed the creation of majority-minority seats to provide minority voters with the opportunity to elect members of their own choosing, where possible. The measure was a way to make sure minority votes were not diluted. It does not state that these districts needed to pack 50 percent — or more — of the minority voters into one district in order to so. But that’s what Republican mapmakers did.
So, as black and Latino voters were packed into “majority-minority” seats, surrounding districts became whiter and more Republican. This was no accident, these memos suggest, but a conscious, decadeslong plan: “GOP attorneys and redistricting experts successfully fought three decades of court battles which culminated just this November when the GOP gained full political control of the entire South.”
As “more and more minority districts” were created, the memo maintains, “Democrats became less and less able to take advantage of strong Democratic minority areas to create districts which would elect non-minority Democrats to both state legislatures and Congress.” In other words, the GOP redistricting strategy helped turn the South red by making minorities the face of the Democratic Party throughout the region. White moderate Democrats were replaced by a small number of progressive minorities and a larger number of white conservative Republicans.
Hofeller’s files include candid updates on the state of the redistricting fight from 2011, when this decade’s mapmaking began, through 2014, as GOP-drawn maps in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere became enmeshed in litigation as unconstitutional partisan or racial gerrymanders. They capture the jubilation among Republican strategists after the 2010 GOP landslide, as they immediately recognized the power gained by drawing advantageous maps across swing states like Ohio, Michigan, and Florida, and celebrate the success of a California initiative establishing independent redistricting in a state ordinarily run by Democrats. They also capture the long sigh of relief after the 2012 Obama reelection, and how they, in private, credit GOP maps for allowing the party to maintain control of Congress and many state legislatures even with fewer overall votes.
The memos show that top GOP leaders recognized what they’d won in November 2010: When they gained control over state legislatures in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, and many other states, they also gained control over redistricting. It was also a census year, meaning they’d be able to draw new districts in more than 75 percent of states gaining or losing a member of Congress due to population shifts in the decennial reapportionment. Democrats, one memo noted, would “take the hit.”
The boasting began early: “The Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania congressional maps offered strong victories for Republicans so far in the redistricting process,” Hofeller wrote in a 2011 end of year status update to Republican stakeholders. “Georgia’s one seat gain in reapportionment benefits the GOP as the legislature is fully controlled by Republicans. They used this opportunity to draw a new GOP congressional seat and tighten control of other districts.”
Indeed, REDMAP, a program the Republican State Leadership Committee funded with $30 million contributed from top GOP donors including Reynolds American, Altria, and Walmart, would prove even more effective that Republicans imagined. Even in 2018 — four election cycles into these maps, and long past the time when most gerrymanders remain effective — Republicans won towering majorities in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin legislative chambers with fewer total Republican votes.
But what these memos and internal documents demonstrate is that this was a far-reaching strategy designed to make minority rule part of the American electoral landscape. A November 8, 2010, memo from then-RNC Chair Michael Steele to national committee members described the party’s electoral victories the week before as “not just dramatic, they were historic” and the “best showing by the Republican party in generations.”
More importantly, Steele observed, the 2010 victories set the party up for a decade of dominance. “Viewed in the context of redistricting, the Republican legislative gains are even more impressive,” he wrote.
Steele also noted that California voters passed an initiative establishing an independent redistricting commission for congressional districts, “reducing the number of Congressional seats in which Democrats control the redistricting process nationally by more than a third.”
As maps began to emerge across the country, many drawn by Hofeller and others under his tutelage, the gerrymandering mastermind understood just how advantageous these new congressional lines would be for his side.
Hofeller surveyed the nation in a memo drafted for the RNC, called “Redistricting Narrative State-by-State 2011.” He liked what he saw. Hofeller looked especially excited about North Carolina, where, the memo details, a congressional map he thought favored Democrats during the 2000s was “a problem we should be able to remedy. … Look for large GOP gains in congressional seats in State as well as out being able to shore up our legislative chambers majorities.” (The maps in North Carolina were struck down recently for partisan gerrymandering, in part based on files from Hofeller’s backups showing calculations by race.)
In February 2012, more than eight months before a vote would be cast in any of these districts, he provided the Republican State Leadership Committee with a state-by-state roadmap. In Pennsylvania, he observed, “The GOP congressional remap was very aggressive, with the Democrats taking the hit on the lost seat and the GOP strengthening its margins in many of its present seats.” He had similar news from Ohio, Michigan, and Georgia, where, he wrote, the “GOP is fully in control and used the opportunity to draw a new GOP congressional seat and tighten control of other districts.”
In Florida, Hofeller noted the passage of a constitutional amendment with “vague language” forbidding any effort to draw districts that favor or disfavor either side, “which, of course, happens in any redistricting map.” And he smiled upon California, describing a 2001 compromise between Democrats and Republicans as an incumbent-friendly “‘sweetheart’ deal … entirely designed to eliminate competition.” The new maps, he reported, would lead to a “somewhat increased level of partisan competitiveness.”
In Texas, meanwhile, Hofeller and his firm warned that legislative Republicans were overreaching in their plans, and jeopardizing GOP gains, by diluting the vote of Latinos.
Hofeller’s firm rang the alarm in early June 2011 after analyzing the legislature’s latest map. “There is no new Latino district in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — with all the Latino and African populations not contained in Congresswoman Johnson’s District (30-D) being fractured between GOP districts in the area,” he noted, in a memo marked confidential and addressed simply to “the RNC chief counsel.”
“The Democrats will have no trouble pointing to the fact that the GOP is well aware of ALL the possibilities available to fix these deficiencies, with many of them already on our record,” Hofeller writes. “In addition, MALDEF [the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund] has already submitted its own maps into the record. Proving [discriminatory] intent will be no problem for them.” Indeed, the 2011 maps would be struck down for their discriminatory intent; slightly reworked maps were also the subject of contentious litigation, and ultimately upheld 5-4 by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018.
The Texas attorney general, Hofeller said, understood the risks the legislature could be taking but appeared unable to steer the chambers into a legal “safe harbor,” which would only end up helping the Democrats. “The other side,” he adds, “only needs one good mistake on our part to stall us and decrease our possible seat gains by forcing the remap into the Texas federal court.”
As early as October 2011, Hofeller and Oldham recognized that while Republicans had the electoral edge and had achieved important victories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere, but Democrats appeared better funded to litigate maps and unwind the GOP success. In Colorado, Minnesota, Maryland, Nevada, and elsewhere, a memo called “Redistricting Hot Spots” that includes revisions by both partners warned that the GOP needed to invest in the legal fight or risk watching their edge evaporate. Illinois, he wrote in the 2011 wrapup, “is the only state in this round of redistricting where the Democrats have control and were able to inflict major damage on the GOP.”
Hofeller was less sanguine about the Arizona redistricting commission, which he claimed Democrats were “successful in subverting” through the selection of an independent chairwoman who was “somewhat less than forthcoming about her ties to the Democrats.” Hofeller fretted that it could cost the GOP two seats in Congress and weaken its hold on the legislature, “all a result of Arizona’s GOP stakeholders being ‘asleep at the switch’ during part of the process selecting the members of the commission.”
And in Nevada, they write, “The ability to gain control of the state senate, better numbers in the Assembly including sustaining vetos, and one and a half GOP congressional seat are at stake. This case is chronically underfunded on the GOP side.” Divided political control in Minnesota created a deadlock over maps which landed in the courts, and the memo warns that “newly-won legislative majorities are at stake and the Democrats have sent in their ‘A Team.’” A spreadsheet called “Redistricting Legal A” lays out a more than $9 million litigation budget for 2011, including fees for Hofeller and Oldham. It breaks down the needs state by state and offers a narrative that includes insights into GOP strategies.
While Republicans have described the Democratic litigation this decade as “sue until blue,” this document shows that the GOP also considered litigation over what they saw as unfriendly maps in Kentucky and Illinois. In Illinois, “Section 2 litigation may be only hope of challenging Dem plans if they eliminate or reduce minority districts to strengthen white D seats,” the memo notes. In Georgia, “litigation would result in better state house map if deviations in D produced house map are as bad as 2000 cycle.”
By July 2013, Hofeller already had his eyes on the 2021 cycle and cautioned party leaders not to repeat mistakes of previous decades. In a memo addressed to to RNC counsel John Phillippe, Hofeller urged Republicans to begin collecting voter data and continue training mapmakers for the next round of redistricting.
A redistricting database, Hofeller reminded Phillippe, must be more detailed than the voter files candidates use to target potential supporters. “Redistricting data must be more comprehensive and accurate so that statistics derived from the data can hold up in court,” he wrote. “All the registration and election data must also be geographically matched to census geographic units — usually at the census block level. Once again, this is a more exacting standard than typically required for campaign use.”
The December 2014 memo that linked GOP redistricting and the Voting Rights Act also envisioned the Democratic response and the racial gerrymandering litigation that is still playing out in federal courts.
Democrats, according to the memo, would litigate against these maps by arguing that minority candidates could win without representing 50 percent of a district’s population, and instead would argue that minority voters could win a congressional seat with as little as 30 or 40 percent of the population in many states:
Subsequently, Democrats have turned to state and federal courts in an attempt to claw back their lost districts by trying to convince courts that majority-minority districts are not required by the Voting Rights Act. Democrats are seeking to establish new law which will mandate minority voters the right to maximize their votes, as DEMOCRATS, by substituting “influence”, “crossover” and “coalition” districts with minority percentages in the 30s and 40s for majority-minority districts in excess of 50% minority populations.
In Alabama, the Democrats are even attempting to convince the United States Supreme Court that minority districts should be deliberately underpopulated to allow Democrat-rich minority voters to be spread out into neighboring districts to aid in the election of more white Democrat legislators and members of Congress.
He suggested that would be the next — and expensive — battleground.
“We must win or hold our own in this redistricting legal battle or the maps drawn in the next cycle (2021) will be considerable less favorable to the GOP. Like it or not the 2010 redistricting process is far from complete, and the Democrats would gleefully celebrate our abandonment of the battle field just as Obama abandoned our military gains in Iraq.”
“Redistricting is one of the most profitable and business like investments that the GOP can make. Even if it results in only the gain or preservation of one or two additional congressional seats for 10 years, it is more that worth this investment.”
The files of Republican gerrymandering mastermind Thomas Hofeller provide a window into his redistricting work across the U.S., and the network of political operatives who supported it.