Seeking a path back to power in Congress, Democrats first want to hold on to the governorship in Virginia this year. Then they're setting their sights in 2018 on crucial governors' contests in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
The targeted races are part of a strategy by a new Democratic coalition led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that aims to undo what he denounces as the "rigged political process" that has favored Republicans since congressional and state legislative districts were redrawn after the 2010 Census.
To win in Washington, Democrats have come to believe that they must first gain ground locally — through elections for governors and state legislators, court cases or ballot initiatives. Most governors elected in 2017 and 2018 will still be in office when the next round of redistricting occurs after the 2020 Census, wielding a potential veto pen over maps drawn by legislatures.
Democratic-backed legal challenges to the current districts in some states also could set new precedents for how redistricting must occur nationally. And in some states, Democratic-aligned groups are considering state ballot initiatives that could diminish the power of legislatures to draw districts, instead entrusting the process to bipartisan or independent commissions.
Republicans won a 241-194 majority over Democrats in last year's U.S. House elections, claiming more than 55 percent of the seats even though they edged Democrats by just 1 percentage point in the nationwide popular vote. Holder contends that disproportionate ratio is partly the result of partisan gerrymandering engineered by Republicans, who now control about two-thirds of all state legislatures.
"The will of the people, I think, has ultimately been frustrated — both at the state level and at the federal level," Holder said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Because of the way districts are drawn, Holder says it will be difficult for Democrats to regain control of Congress in the 2018 elections during the middle of Republican President Donald Trump's term. But he's hopeful of laying a foundation for future success.
Holder, who was attorney general under former President Barack Obama, is chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, a new alliance of Democratic leaders, unions and progressive groups trying to bolster Democratic prospects ahead of the next round of redistricting.
"The mission is simple: Better maps in 2021 than we got coming out of the census in 2010," Holder told a group of reporters in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
He views the effort as a continuation of his work as attorney general "protecting voting rights" against Republican initiatives such as photo identification requirements, although the new committee will leave it to others to challenge such laws.
Obama also will be involved in the redistricting effort and already has helped with fundraising, Holder said. He declined to say how much money has been raised so far.
The Democratic initiative is modeled after the Republicans' successful Redistricting Majority Project, which contributed to a wave of state legislative and gubernatorial victories in 2010. Those new Republican majorities then were able to control the 2011 redistricting, helping to lock in favorable political maps for years to come.
Since then, Republicans have seized even more states, now controlling the governorship and full legislature in 25 states while total Democratic control has diminished to about a half-dozen states. Republicans contend their dominance is due primarily to superior candidates and issues, not manipulated maps.
"Right now, the Democrats are in their nightmare scenario, and they're responding" with talented strategists and fundraisers, said Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee.
But he said if Democrats take a top-down approach to targeting local races, "we'll continue to win."
Many Democrats say the party failed to focus enough on local candidates during Obama's tenure. Newly elected Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is pledging to rebuild the party at all levels, from the "school board to the Senate."
Holder's redistricting initiative is dividing states into four tiers, focusing foremost on those with the largest gaps between the partisan popular votes and seats won, and where Democrats can have the greatest impact by winning a key election or court battle. At the bottom are states with few members of Congress, unlikely to flip to Democrats or where there is little ability to influence the redistricting process.
Among their top targets is Virginia, where Democratic congressional candidates received about 16,000 more votes than Republicans last November yet won just four of the state's 11 U.S. House seats. Even that marked a gain: Democrats flipped one Republican seat after a federal appeals court ordered new district boundaries because too many black voters had been packed into a single district under the Republican-drawn maps.
Democrats want to retain the governor's office, now held by term-limited Gov. Terry McAuliffe, to provide leverage during the 2021 redistricting against a state legislature currently led by Republicans.
A similar scenario exists in Michigan, where Republican congressional candidates edged Democrats by a single percentage point in last year's statewide vote yet won 9 of the 14 districts, which were drawn under a GOP legislature and governor. Democrats are taking a three-pronged approach: considering filing suit against the current districts; backing a ballot initiative to change the future redistricting process; and trying to win the governor's office being vacated by term-limited Republican Rick Snyder.
"There are a lot of big governors' races in states where maps are particularly egregious," said Kelly Ward, executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Where Republicans control the state legislature, those governors are essential "to get a Democrat at the table in the redistricting process," she added.
Governors' races also will be the top targets for Democrats in Ohio and Pennsylvania, two places with Republican state legislatures where GOP congressional candidates' received a mid-50s percent share of the statewide vote yet won around 75 percent of their U.S. House seats.
Florida is another high-stakes state, with a term-limited Republican governor in 2018, a GOP-led state legislature and a 16-11 Republican advantage in U.S. House seats.
Republicans will be mounting similar offensives in Illinois and Maryland, hoping to hold on to GOP governorships as a redistricting buffer against Democratic-dominated state legislatures that drew congressional maps in their favor after the 2010 Census.
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.
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