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Are Trump, GOP Fueling A Blue, Green Tidal Wave?

Congressional redistricting and deepening support for the environment could soon be re-shaping the map of America

Electoral map courtesy Leonardo Quevedo.  Effects added by MoJo staff
Electoral map courtesy Leonardo Quevedo. Effects added by MoJo staff
A demographic tidal wave is building, an irreversible juggernaut that is certain to transform politics in America.

Members of Congress and the Trump Administration know that it’s bearing down and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. It involves the rapidly-approaching future reflecting more diverse coteries of citizens.

The only question regarding its inevitability is when will it arrive and who is willing to adapt because resisting reality is futile. A reccent decision handed down by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania regarding political gerrymandering and the shaping of Congressional districts may seem irrelevant to many readers.

But this case and others now moving through the U.S. court system, pertaining to how Congressional districts are drawn in order to reflect the changing face of the country, have potentially titanic implications, even for those concerned about the future of the public lands West.

No matter if Wyoming continues to burn supernova as a red state, joined by her neighbors Idaho, Utah, the Dakotas and Nebraska, elected officials from those provinces will soon confront a choice: will they stand in defiant resistance to an America changing around them, or will they move toward the middle of political discourse to try to be more effectual in brokering deals for their constituents.

As the Trump Administration and members of the political right in Congress now rush to dismantle and eliminate vanguard environmental protections, strong indicators exist that its days of pushing an agenda deemed radical by a majority of Americans—including longstanding GOP moderates— may be numbered.

Historians, policy experts, conservationists and even public land managers say that legislation drafted by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and accompanied by executive orders from departments like Interior, Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency are unprecedented in the modern environmental age.

While relying on a base of primarily angry white males, and taking advantage of widespread disdain for Hillary Clinton may have gotten him elected, Trump’s alienation of other groups may hasten the backlash against both him and the Republican Freedom and Western caucuses, of which many GOP lawmakers are closely aligned.

Not long ago, Colorado College released the findings of its annual State of the Rockies Project poll which indicated widespread and overwhelming public support for environmental protection in the West. The poll surveyed public opinions in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. The easy-to-understand results can be viewed here
Key finding of Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies Project. Image used courtesy Colorado College
Key finding of Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies Project. Image used courtesy Colorado College
Besides the impact of redistricting nationally, favoring Democrats who by a wide margin are more supportive of environmental protection, conservation of wildlife and public lands among modern Westerners is also a strong value expressed in the belief system of Westerns reflected in State of the Rockies polls going back 15 years. Such sentiments could soon be registering more strongly in state capitals.

If the tide does turn, experts say, the hope among conservation-minded Americans is that current aggressive attempts to undo public lands protection, eviscerate environmental laws, and deny climate change could be reversed with a different political makeup in the now deeply-entrenched U.S. House and Senate. 

Even if the so-called Freedom and Western caucuses become shriller and defeat moderate, pro-conservation GOP candidates in primaries, they could become  marginalized by voters who reject the policies of President Trump's base.

In fact, the Colorado College poll shows a divide opening up within the GOP ranks. Jonah Seifer, State of the Rockies Project specialist and the Paraprofessional for Research and Community Engagement, noted a couple of big takeaways that both politicians and voters would be wise to heed.

The 2018 poll revealed a larger-than-usual jump in the number of surveyors who identified conservation/public lands/environmental protection as a priority. Without calling out the Trump Administration, he said, “It’s kind of unusual to see such a strong jump among voters in the West who identify as conservationists because it usually doesn’t change much, certainly not so dramatically,” he said. “This is a fast-paced tend, a jump of 13 percent that pushes the number of voters who expressly favor conservation over the three-quarter mark for the first time in our poll’s history.”

Another finding is that regardless of party affiliation, citizens said they believe supporting conservation is a winning platform for candidates to run on. “The other takeaway,” Seifer noted, “is the ridiculously low percentage of Western voters [less than one in five] who felt they were being adequately represented by elected officials in Washington. The way that members of Congress are voting appears to be putting them increasingly at odds with the sentiments of their constituents.  And it was jarring to see that Republican voters who in the past ranked environment as a lesser priority, are giving it far more prominent attention.”
“The other takeaway is the ridiculously low percentage of Western voters [less than one in five] who felt they were being adequately represented by elected officials in Washington. The way that members of Congress are voting appears to be putting them increasingly at odds with the sentiments of their constituents." —Jonah Seifer with Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies Report
Could increasing friction between Republican moderates and the Freedom and Western caucuses result in the emergence of a third party or possibly give way to the opposite phenomenon of what happened with Reagan Democrats in the 1980s?  On top of it, there's court-ordered redistricting.

Recently, I also had a conversation with Dr. David C.W. Parker, an author and professor of political science at Montana State University in Bozeman about implications for the electoral map as well as state legislatures.

The recent ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on redistricting probably isn’t on the radar screen of many living in the interior Rocky Mountain West, but Parker believes it has potentially huge implications for the country, federal policies being enacted on Capitol Hill and how much clout the West will wield.

TODD WILKINSON: First of all, please give us a basic civics lesson on what redistricting is, what it is supposed to do, how districts are set up and what the GOP did that was challenged and overturned in Pennsylvania.

DAVID C PARKER: The Constitution mandates a decennial census. The results of the census are used to apportion U.S. House members among the various states based upon population totals and the method of equal proportions AFTER each state receives the guaranteed minimum of one.

In the 20th century, it has been generally the case that apportionment is followed by redistricting--that is, once a state knows the number of members it will receive, district lines are drawn to create congressional districts for the members. It is the responsibility of the states to draw those lines. Many states, state legislatures and governors draw up the redistricting plans, other states send the process to bipartisan commissions or the courts.

WILKINSON: So it is designed, more or less, to give every region of the country, based on its population, rightful proportionate representation in Congress, right?

PARKER: Since the Supreme Court decision in "Reynolds v. Sims" in 1964, the principle of one man, one vote has been required, meaning the districts drawn must be as equal as possible in population. Before 1964, you had districts which varied tremendously in terms of population, rural-dominated legislatures refusing to draw new districts that were equal in size to protect rural interests, and you had, at times, members serving at large districts. It should also be noted that in the 19th century, redistricting was not a one shot deal, and often happened throughout the decade. Indeed, Indiana redistricted every two years between 1880 and 1890 as Republicans and Democrats switched control over the legislature and governorship.

WILKINSON: The cost of running for office, marshalling a successful campaign, especially for a U.S. Senate seat, and winning in a competitive state is enormous. Even in a state like Montana the amount of outside money pouring in has swelled. With House races, redistricting has rewritten the map of representation and many experts blame it for deepening political and cultural divisions in the country.  How?

Professor David C.W. Parker
Professor David C.W. Parker
PARKER
: As national politics has become increasingly competitive between the parties and technology has improved, battles have shifted from election years to the redistricting process as both parties have sought to create an edge.

WILKINSON: You note that state legislatures play a key role.

PARKER: In the lead up to redistricting, which typically happens after the census and before the next Congressional election (e.g., between 2000 and 2002 or 2010 and 2012), money pours from the national party committees into state legislative and gubernatorial elections in attempt to control the redistricting process in states where it is still controlled by professional politicians.

After the dust settled from the 2010 midterms, Republicans controlled 25 state legislatures, up from 14. This allowed Republicans to dominate the process of redistricting, and using sophisticated strategies combining geo-mapping and big data, to draw districts that gave them an electoral advantage in house districts.

Texas, unprecedented in the 20th century (but not in the 19th), redistricted twice—between 2000 and 2002—and then again before 2004 after gaining increased strength in the legislature at the behest of Tom Delay. The importance of that second redistricting can't be underestimated: Republicans gained a net of three seats. In Texas alone, Republicans picked up seven seats offsetting losses elsewhere in the country.

WILKINSON: You also note that Congressional districts cannot be organized according to racial composition.

PARKER: The U.S. Supreme Court established in a series of cases in the 1990s and 2000s that race is suspect when used in the process of redistricting, and at the very least, it cannot be used as the sole determining factor in drawing district lines.

The Court, however, has been leery of wading into the redistricting process and considering the question of whether drawing lines according to partisan characteristics undermines the 14th amendments equal protection clause and the one man, one vote, principle.

Justice Anthony Kennedy has said that partisan-motivated maps MAY be unconstitutional if a clear test could be developed demonstrating that the votes of one party are clearly disadvantaged and treated unequally in a redistrict. Political scientists have developed such a test, which measures the partisanship of a district, and this test was important to the Wisconsin redistricting case that was heard by the Supreme Court this fall.

WILKINSON: Does it mean that these cases and others working their way through the judicial system could reverse what has controversially happened with redistricting?

PARKER: There are several cases arguing that partisan gerrymandering violates the 14th Amendment. What's important in Pennsylvania, however, is the fact that the court ruled that the redistricting plan violated not the US Constitution, but Pennsylvania's state constitution.

This is very important because it means the decision will likely stand and an appeal to the Supreme Court will be difficult. It opens up a whole other avenue for those seeking to strike down partisan gerrymanders across the states where the process is still in the hands of the governor and legislatures.

If the map is indeed judged to be severely biased in terms of the advantage it gives Republicans, it could mean that five or six Republican seats could be put into further jeopardy in the upcoming midterm which must be run under new and less biased maps. It makes the math for Democrats even more favorable in a midterm election that is already looking like a possible wave election for them. And, it could mean that lawsuits could be filed in other states throwing out other maps--which could seriously cause problems for the Republicans.

WILKINSON: For years, given the rise in numbers of non-white citizens, many political scientists, demographers and others have said America electorally is on the cusp of a sea change. And yet the unexpected Trump victory cut against the grain of a larger mega-trend that is supposedly happening.

PARKER: A number of years ago, Ruy Teixeira wrote a book about the impending Democratic majority. Demographically, the Democratic Party was poised to become the dominant party in America. Minority voters, younger voters, and more secular voters have always been more Democratic in inclination.

With demographic trends favoring these groups at the expense of whiter, older, and religious voters, it was only a matter of time—unless Republicans made inroads into these demographic groups—before the Democratic Party become the majority and dominant party in America. But, Ruy's prognostications have not come to fruition. Yet.

In 2016, we saw, perhaps, the last gasp of the Republican majority. Republicans did not make inroads into the minority or youth vote, but they enjoyed yet again an advantage in turnout and support for Republicans increased among white voters. In addition, less educated whites, in particular, voted for Republicans in larger number than they had in the past.

"We are at the end of the Reagan regime. In many respects, the election of Trump signals the politics of disjunction...where the dominant party begins to unravel as factional disputes cause the party to lose its definition and focus."  —David C.W. Parker
WILKINSON: The mantra of Donald Trump is Make America Great Again as if the future will like the past.  And that mindsight seems to be prevailing with the rhetoric of what some would call the radical right on Capitol Hill. But it seems to exist in denial of the changes in America that are underway. And we should point out, that radical right controls Congress, The White House and is shaping the judiciary. It is also gutting decades’ worth of long-established environmental policies. Where is the hurricane that is supposed to be blowing from the other direction? It hasn’t arrived.

PARKER: One possible reason why the Democratic majority has not come about in House elections is because of the partisan gerrymanders that pack Democratic voters into fewer districts. Judicial decisions that undermine the structural advantage Republicans hold may be exactly what Democrats need to gain the momentum necessary to take advantage of demographic fortunes and finally establish that majority. But, there are other important advantages Democrats have now as well.

First, they are going into a midterm election where the president's party has been traditionally punished and the president is historically unpopular. They should pick up seats—only twice in the post-war era has the out party not picked up seats. Second, we are at the end of the Reagan regime. In many respects, the election of Trump signals the politics of disjunction described by author Stephen Skowronek, where the dominant party begins to unravel as factional disputes cause the party to lose its definition and focus. This leads to a new regime that dominates politics for a period of thirty or forty years, led by the out party that established the core governing theme and establishes a new electoral coalition.

WILKINSON: Are there any implications of the redistricting decision for Montana, Wyoming and Idaho?

PARKER: Not immediately in the sense that Montana and Wyoming have only one seat, and Idaho only two. There may be implication for state legislative districts. Looking at Section 4 of Montana’s Constitution, there’s language suggesting you can’t discriminate based upon political beliefs while also guaranteeing equal protection of the law. Under that, I could see a lawsuit being filed to overturn seats that create an undo advantage for a party.

WILKINSON:  There is talk that Montana may gain back another Congressional seat. How do you expect to see those districts being set compared to, more or less, the old way of an eastern vs. west divide?

PARKER: Yes, I’d agree with that. And you’d get an Eastern seat which will be more conservative and a Western seat, which is more liberal. The big question would be where booming Bozeman might fall in drawing those lines.

WILKINSON:  Are you sympathetic to the argument that popular vote matters.  Whether yes or no, please explain your thinking.
            
PARKER: I think you mean in the sense of the electoral college. I’d say this: The Founders created the Electoral College to encourage candidates to campaign more widely and build a base of geographic support beyond a few states or big urban areas. They also devised the system as an additional check on mobocracy. In terms of the second issue, the Electoral College no longer works as intended and electors essentially cast their ballots in line with the popular vote totals in the states.

In fact, a number of states have laws requiring them to do so, though I do think these laws are unconstitutional and could be challenged. In that sense, if the electoral college is not really acting as an independent check, then it should either be eliminated or reformed. I do think that if you eliminated it, then you’d see campaigns change dramatically and focus even less across the country than they do now, which I think would be problematic. So, I’d say what is more important to me than the popular vote is for support for a president to be geographically diverse.
"If the electoral college is not really acting as an independent check, then it should either be eliminated or reformed. I do think that if you eliminated it, then you’d see campaigns change dramatically and focus even less across the country than they do now."
WILKINSON: Montana and Wyoming are regarded as flyovers.  Do they matter? And what could change to give them greater influence?

PARKER: Do they matter in terms of the electoral college? Wyoming is not competitive, so there’s no reason for a candidate to campaign there—and one might argue that if you eliminate the electoral college, there would be even less reason if that’s possible.

Montana is a bit more purple, and almost went for Obama in 2008 and went for Clinton once. That means that nominally Montana matters more in presidential elections, but in practice, not really. If Montana does get two congressional seats, they could put in place a system like Maine’s where a candidate gets one electoral vote per congressional district won in the popular vote. That might make Montana more enticing from a campaign perspective in tight election years.

WILKINSON: The widely-held perception from the coasts is that spacious Montana is a "rural" state. Don’t a majority of Montanans live in cities?  Some have argued that rural counties where fewer people are have a disproportionate amount of influence. From your objective standpoint, is that true?

PARKER: Montana is an urban state, a state of small cities. It’s not as “rural” as one might think. Do rural counties have disproportionate influence? I’d say that rural counties in Montana receive far more federal and state assistance than they might like to believe. Is that influence? Perhaps.
The wild outdoors is deeply embedded in cultural identity.  Graphic courtesy Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies poll
The wild outdoors is deeply embedded in cultural identity. Graphic courtesy Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies poll
WILKINSON:  You wrote a book, Battle for the Big Sky: Representations and the Politics of Place in the Senate about the race between incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and his challenger, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg. What did you learn from writing that book?

PARKER: That Montana is an urban state that likes to think it’s rural. That the state is not red or blue, but really purple. It is a state leery not just of federal power, but of big corporations. It is a state not just of individual loaners, but a state that values community and was founded, in large part, because of a cooperative spirit and a willingness to help neighbors. It is a place where both Republicans and Democrats love the land, care deeply for it, and are willing to look beyond partisanship when choosing its leaders.
Results of Colorado College 2018 State of the Rockies poll
Results of Colorado College 2018 State of the Rockies poll
WILKINSON:  Is Dark Money a problem? If yes, why and how?

PARKER: This is a tricky question, and mostly because I’ve evolved somewhat in terms of my view. On the face of it, I agree with the notion that money is connected to speech and that money spent on electioneering should receive the highest protection under the first amendment. That said, I think Dark Money is enormously problematic because it allows some individuals a grossly unequal voice in the political process and in a manner that distorts democratic procedures.

Candidates and political parties, when they engage in electioneering, have to worry about the consequences of their actions on their brands. Rich individuals and organizations do not. There is no fidelity to the political process. There is no fidelity to transparency. A group can pop up, drop a bunch of ads, and disappear. That creates a problem of accountability and it distorts the political agenda. And because there is not accountability, they can make outrageous, even false claims—and do so at the last minute in low information elections that can tip the balance. That’s the danger of dark money. Given that the FEC and Congress has been unable to regulate dark money effectively, it might be time to consider returning to the pre-Citizens United world where money coming into the political system was more tightly regulated.

WILKINSON:  Why does the media matter?

PARKER: The media matters for two reasons. First, to create a record of facts upon which we can all agree. Second, to hold our elected leaders accountable to the people. A free and unfettered media is an important public check on tyranny. 
The media matters for two reasons. First, to create a record of facts upon which we can all agree. Second, to hold our elected leaders accountable to the people. A free and unfettered media is an important public check on tyranny.         —David C.W. Parker
WILKINSON:  In what direction do you see the political make up of states like Montana, Wyoming and Idaho headed and why? 

PARKER: That’s hard to say. I can’t see Wyoming becoming any less Republican or conservative. Montana is interesting. The rural areas are getting older and less populated, with the state’s growth in urban counties. The highest rates of birth are among Native Americans. This all suggests that that the state may trend more Democratic in the years to come, but much of that depends on migration pattern into the state and who is moving here.

The same might be said about Idaho, which has a growing and sizeable Latino population. The key question here, though, is what percentage of Latinos in Idaho are Mormon—which would make them more conservative, perhaps, than other Latino groups. Even then, I think I’d be hard pressed to say that Idaho will become a purple state soon.

WILKINSON:  As incumbents, do you think Sen. Jon Tester and U.S. Rep Greg Gianforte will have tight races and do you have any predictions?  What are the key factors?

PARKER:  For Tester, he’s in a better spot than he was in 2012. His competition is not as strong, and his Republican opponents are generally weaker or have flaws that may be easy to exploit in the general election. It’s a midterm election, and it is unusual for the out party to lose seats in the Senate.

Tester is in his second term, so he is not as vulnerable as he was running in his first reelection campaign. He is raising money at a faster clip than he did in 2012, and he has been ranked as one of the most effective Democratic legislators in the Senate. And he has a series of bills that have been signed into law under Trump.

He has real accomplishments to show Montanans, more so than he did in 2012. We also haven’t seen the amount of outside money come in and attack him that we did in 2012. There are other, more inviting Democratic targets for those groups to focus on at the moment. Key for Tester is remaining personally popular despite his Democratic label.

Gianforte, the circumstances are different.  As an incumbent, he is in a weaker position. It’s his first reelection, and he won a special election, so he’s not a true incumbent in the full sense of the world.

Democrats are raising a lot of money, so that suggests there’s enthusiasm among Democrats ,while Gianforte has raised very little since the special election. Nevertheless, Gianforte has to be considered the favorite. His seat is ranked as competitive by Cook Political Report, but the seat is rated as likely. He should win. That said, in a wave type midterm election, this is the type of seat that could become increasingly competitive as time goes on. He has also, surprisingly, developed a pretty moderate voting record.

According to Voteview, he is more liberal than the median Republican in the House. No doubt, his physical assault on the reporter will be brought up, as will the lack of town hall meetings. Perhaps his biggest weakness is his personal wealth in the sense that I’m not convinced that the average Montanan feels connected to him. But, even if he doesn’t raise a lot of money, he can call upon considerable personal resources to fund his campaign. I’d still put Gianforte at 70 percent for reelection.

WILKINSON:  Returning to the macro-picture and the potential shift that could happen with redistricting, will Montana, Wyoming and Idaho be left more or less relevant and what does that mean?

PARKER: If Montana gains a seat, it will have more political power in Washington. But relevant in presidential elections? Marginally.

Westerners are public-lands oriented as reflected in their main interests identified by Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies poll.
Westerners are public-lands oriented as reflected in their main interests identified by Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies poll.
Westerners are public-lands oriented as reflected in their main interests identified by Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies poll.  Images courtesy Colorado College
Westerners are public-lands oriented as reflected in their main interests identified by Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies poll. Images courtesy Colorado College
WILKINSON: Government data collected by outfits like Headwaters Economics in Bozeman pretty convincingly shows that natural resource extraction, as job creators, is on the wane and has been for some time, representing only a very tiny percentage of the larger employment pie.  Yet why are our states, politicians that is, so resistant to acknowledging this fact?

PARKER: I think for one very important reason: That industry, despite its small footprint as a job creator, yields well-paying jobs for working class constituents. Those jobs may be fewer and fewer as time goes on and automation marches on, but that’s very important to a politician that wants to show they care about all the people. Finally, because of the way these industries are concentrated geographically, losing them would be devastating to particular communities.

It’s all about the traceability chain: If you close these industries, the devastation is easy to see immediately and the blame easy to pin. Finally, our revenue structures are still outdated and haven’t caught up with the new realities of Montana’s economy. Until we develop a revenue system that relies less on extractive taxes and more on income or sales taxes, we are trapped in this cycle of being dependent upon this shrinking sector for our public revenues.

WILKINSON: How connected do you think Westerners are to public lands and where are the sentiments trending?

PARKER: Very connected. I don’t see that appreciably changing, particularly in Montana where people use public lands extensively. In fact, Westerners may appreciate it more as cities expand and population continues to rise globally.

WILKINSON: If you could wave a magic wand and by edict order changes to the political process, what would those changes be?

PARKER: I would require our executive officials to subject themselves to weekly questions from Congress much as they do in Great Britain. I would also require politicians to create policy briefs which honestly, and forthrightly, lay out the positive and negatives of the policies they pursue—and to anchor all of their policy decisions in empirics, rather than their hopes and prayers—or blind adherence to a particular ideology.
Priorities: A telling take-home from Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies poll
Priorities: A telling take-home from Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies poll
Priorities: Telling take-homes, above, from Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies poll
Priorities: Telling take-homes, above, from Colorado College's 2018 State of the Rockies poll

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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