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Republican Gerrymanders Have Locked in Control of Key State Legislatures

While there has been a lot of attention to gerrymandering of congressional districts, in four key states—Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Texas—Republican lawmakers have drawn maps for the state House and state Senate that virtually guarantee Republican majorities for at least 10 years and maybe longer. In some cases, the Republican majorities are so lopsided that the legislature can override a Democratic governor's veto. The maps are so partisan that even in a blue wave, the Republicans will be able to hold their majorities, almost irrespective of who the candidates are in each district. The result is almost no competitive districts for state legislative elections. In the 150-seat Texas House, for example, in only six districts would the 2020 election have produced a result with a gap of 7 points or less between the winner and loser. The other 144 are a done deal for one party or the other—mostly for the Republicans since they drew the map.

Chris Lamar, a senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a public-interest group trying to preserve democracy, said: "This is not your founding fathers' gerrymander." Armed with sophisticated software, very fine-grained election data, powerful computers, a gutted Voting Rights Act, indifferent courts, and a complete lack of interest in preserving democratic elections, Republicans are set to create powerful and enduring majorities in all four states' legislatures.

However, in three other key states—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—the picture is not so bleak for the Democrats. Michigan's maps will be drawn by an independent commission. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have Democratic governors who will veto the legislatures' maps, forcing the courts to hire special masters to draw the maps. All three states are likely to have many competitive districts.

At the other end of the spectrum, in New York and Illinois, the Democrats are going to draw state maps to keep them in power for at least 10 years.

State legislative districts are far smaller than congressional districts. A typical congressional district has about 750,000 people. By way of comparison, a state House district in Georgia has about 60,000 people. With such small numbers, gerrymandering becomes a precision operation, but experts can still do it. The techniques are the same at the state level as nationally. They are packing and cracking. With packing, supporters of the opposing party are crammed into a small number of districts where they have huge majorities, basically removing those voters from other districts where the gerrymanderers can arrange for small majorities. With cracking, cities or regions where the opposing party has many supporters are split up like slices of a pizza so that no district has enough of them to elect a representative or state senator. In large cities with many Black residents, pizza-slice-shaped districts are also conveniently racial gerrymanders, kind of a twofer for the Republicans. However, they have to be a little bit subtle here since the Supreme Court has ruled that while partisan gerrymanders are hunky dory, racial ones are verboten.

One conceivable way back toward democracy is a constitutional amendment banning all gerrymandering and having independent commissions draw all the maps. The problem with passing it would be getting 38 states to ratify the amendment. While the voters don't like gerrymandering, the current incumbents like it very much. Also, then the question of who is sitting on the independent commissions becomes key. One rule that would help a lot is a requirement for a supermajority to approve a map. For example, the majority and minority parties each get to appoint two members of the commission and the governor gets to pick the fifth member, but it takes four votes to approve a map.

A much more radical approach would be to eliminate districts altogether. Instead, all representatives would be statewide at-large. Seats would be allocated to parties in proportion to the popular vote. So, for example, California will soon have 52 U.S. House seats. Each party would draw up an ordered list of up to 52 House candidates. People would then vote for a party for the House, not a candidate. If the Democrats got, say, 60% of the vote for the House, they would get 60% of 52 seats, so the top 31 people on their list would be elected, as would the top 21 Republicans. The state legislatures could work the same way. At the moment, federal law mandates single-member districts, but what Congress giveth, Congress can taketh away, if it so decides. (V)

Maybe the State Courts Could Save Democracy

The Democrats would love to end gerrymandering by passing H.R. 1, but they are stymied by the Senate filibuster and they don't have the votes to reform it. However, there might be another route that hasn't been fully explored yet: the state courts.

In 2019, when the U.S. Supreme Court said that it wasn't interested in blocking partisan gerrymandering, it did suggest that the states were free to do so if they wished. It's a possibility. All the state constitutions except Arizona's have a provision stating that citizens have a fundamental right to vote. Half of them even have some wording about elections being "free and equal" or "free and open" or something like that. That is pretty vague, meaning it is up to the state Supreme Court to determine what, if anything, that means.

To get a ruling, voting-rights activists need to bring lawsuits against the new gerrymandered maps in state courts. There is some precedent for this. In recent years, both the Pennsylvania and North Carolina state Supreme Courts overturned blatant partisan gerrymanders, noting that when politicians pick their voters rather than the other way around, the elections are no longer "free." It is certainly worth bringing lawsuits in other states with blatant gerrymanders, although the worst offenders are in deep red states like Texas, where all members of the state Supreme Court are Republican appointees. On the other hand, North Carolina is probably ground zero for this approach since the state legislature designed a very heavily gerrymandered map and the state Supreme Court has a history of tossing out highly partisan maps. The Court could do it again. Bringing lawsuits everywhere the map is blatantly partisan does not interfere with efforts to pass voting-rights' bills in Congress, so people trying to preserve democracy could try both strategies at the same time. (V)

One of Biden's Nominations Is Opposed--by Democrats

Yesterday, we had an item about a moderately obscure office, the Office of Management and Budget. Today we have one about an even more obscure office, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Do you know what it does? (Saying it "comptrols the currency" is not a valid answer.)

OK, here's the scoop. It regulates assets held by more than 1,000 banks, from itty bitty community banks to J.P. Morgan Chase. These banks manage assets of $15 trillion. The office has actually been around for quite some time. It was created in 1863. Nominally it is within the Treasury Department, but it operates independently. In the past, the comptroller has been accused of being too close to the banks. Joseph Otting, who was comptroller during the Trump administration, referred to the banks as his customers. That is way off. The companies you are supposed to oversee are definitely not your customers. The inmates a prison guard is supposed to watch are not his customers.

Joe Biden has nominated Saule Omarova as comptroller. She was born in the Kazakh Region of the former Soviet Union, graduated from Moscow State University in 1989, and then came to the U.S. in 1991 with one suitcase and a $50 bill in her pocket. When the Soviet Union fell apart, she was stranded in the U.S. She nonetheless managed to get a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and a J.D. from Northwestern University. During the George W. Bush administration, she worked in the Treasury Department as a special adviser. Currently she is a professor of law and public affairs at Cornell specializing in financial regulation.

So what's the problem? It goes back a ways. Her thesis, written at Moscow State University, was entitled: "Karl Marx' Economic Analysis and the Theory of Revolution in The Capital." Do you have a hint where this is going? More recently she has suggested that the federal government could offer simple bank accounts to the unbanked. In a number of Western countries, post offices offer checking accounts, savings accounts, and small loans. But the banks don't like the idea at all because simple accounts with low fees might draw a lot of customers away from them. She also suggested a new government agency analogous to the FDA that would have to approve new financial products before banks could offer them.

Between her background and her ideas, Republicans are dead set against her. In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) said Omarova "clearly has an aversion to anything like free-market capitalism." Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, called Toomey's remarks "despicable." At her hearing, when Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said he didn't know whether to call her "professor" or "comrade," she shot back: "I am not a communist."

Most close observers assume Omarova would ride herd on the banks much more than any of her predecessors. She would make sure banks are providing core services to people at reasonable prices. To some senators, this is communism.

Omarova's biggest problem is that three of the Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee oppose her nomination. They are Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), Jon Tester (MT), and Mark Warner (VA). If even one of them votes against her confirmation, she goes down in flames. The White House has called out the Republicans for their lies and asked the Senate Democrats to support her. Brown also supports her, but the combination of (1) being from the former Soviet Union, (2) having written a thesis on Karl Marx, (3) being a woman, and (4) actually wanting to do the job of comptroller and regulate the banks has made her confirmation iffy at best. (V)

Greene Introduces a Bill to Honor Rittenhouse

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) appears to be confused. She introduced a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Kyle Rittenhouse for his public service of protecting the community by shooting three people. The surprise here is that she didn't put Travis McMichael up for consideration first. After all, he's from her home state, and, well...

The chances that this bill gets passed are fairly low. Like, "Secretary of State Mike Lindell" low, or "Pittsburgh Pirates win the next five World Series in a row" low, or "Best Actor Pauly Shore" low. A bill requesting the medal must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate before it even goes to the relevant committees in both chambers. If both chambers pass the bill, the president must sign it.

Nonetheless, in some circles, Rittenhouse is seen as a hero. Reps. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) have both offered internships to Rittenhouse. However, Gaetz doesn't want Rittenhouse to get the medal because he is afraid that will give him a "big head" during his internship.

Past recipients of the medal have included Winston Churchill, Bob Hope, George Washington, Robert Frost, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa. So Greene feels Rittenhouse's achievements clearly put him in that league.

The Representative definitely likes being in the news. She also announced that she had some demands for any candidate for Speaker of the House, if the Republicans gain the majority in 2022. Among other things, she wants Reps. Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) kicked out of the Republican caucus if they come back in 2023, something increasingly unlikely. She also wants Rep. John Katko (R-NY) to be removed from the top position on the House Homeland Security Committee. If the Republicans gain the majority in 2022 and each Republican comes with a list of demands like this, electing a speaker might not be so easy. (V)

Maybe the Democrats Can Find a Senate Candidate in Missouri after All

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) is retiring and the Republicans are having a bloodbath trying to settle on a replacement. Missouri AG Eric Schmitt (R) is running, but is so far right that he might be too much even for many Republicans. The other major candidate is disgraced former governor Eric Greitens. He tied up his mistress, took nude photos of her and threatened to blackmail her if she went public about the affair. It came out anyway. His wife divorced him and the state legislature was about to impeach and remove him, but he beat them to the punch by resigning before they could pull it off. Now he is trying for a comeback by running for Blunt's seat.

If Greitens is the nominee, a Democrat might actually have a chance, but one has to show up first. No high-profile Democrat has signed up. But now a low-profile Democrat has appeared on the scene and he has raised his profile enough that Politico Magazine has written a long piece on him. He is a tall, skinny Marine veteran named Lucas Kunce (pronounced "Koontz") and although he is technically a Democrat, he calls himself a "populist." His slogan is: "Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, you're all getting screwed." He is very fond of bashing the "elites" and that is resonating on the campaign trail.

What has attracted the media's attention is his fundraising. He raised more money last quarter than anyone else in the race, Democrat or Republican. That definitely gets people's attention.

Kunce doesn't like it at all when people compare him to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who also calls himself a populist. Kunce likes to point out that Hawley is the son of a banker and went to a private school, whereas he (Kunce) is genuinely working class.

Kunce is a test case to see if he can redefine populism without Donald Trump's anti-immigrant xenophobia or Hawley's religious conservatism. His message isn't actually that different from that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), though he yells less. Missouri is a strange place to test out an anti-elite populist Democratic message. It used to be a swing state, but now Republicans control it completely. But if his approach works, it could show Democrats a possible path forward to win in red states and rural areas. It is not impossible. In 2016, Jason Kander ran a campaign similar to Kunce's and came within 3 points of unseating Blunt. Now it is an open seat and the Republicans might just nominate someone who makes Todd "legitimate rape" Akin look like a choir boy.

Kunce isn't the only Democrat running for the nomination. State Sen. Scott Sifton is also running, but Kunce has greatly outraised him. When two relatively unknown candidates are running, the smart money will generally bet on the one with the bigger bank account, and that is Kunce.

CNN has made a list of the Senate seats most likely to switch parties. Missouri made the top 10. Here is the list with the incumbent party indicated in parentheses: Pennsylvania (R), Georgia (D), Wisconsin (R), Arizona (D), North Carolina (R), New Hampshire (D), Nevada (D), Florida (R), Ohio (R), and Missouri (R). We agree that these are the most contested seats, but other than Pennsylvania being #1, ordering the next half dozen is very difficult. (V)

This Week in Schadenfreude

Who grifts the grifters? That is an interesting question, and one that we'd like to know the answer to. You see, despite the Arizona audit being a farce, supporters donated over $6 million to pay for it. And the presumption was that the money would go to Cyber Ninjas, the firm that conducted the audit despite having absolutely zero relevant expertise.

At this point, the audit's status as a train wreck is secure. Not only was it conducted so amateurishly that it could have been a Saturday Night Live sketch, and not only did it take four times longer than it was supposed to, it concluded that there was no "steal" and that, in fact, Joe Biden was entitled to a few more votes than he was actually credited with. That is most definitely not what those donors were paying for.

On top of that—and this is where the schadenfreude comes in—reader J.H. in Boston draws our attention to reports that Cyber Ninjas and its CEO Doug Logan are apparently in deep financial trouble. Wherever that $6 million went, Logan claims it did not go to him. Consequently, he is now $2 million in debt, or about $1 for every ballot that was recounted. He was expecting to get a lot more "auditing" business, but given the results in Arizona, that hasn't happened. So, he and his firm are supposedly teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Now, we should note that it is possible that this is yet another grift. That is to say, Logan is coupling his laments about imminent poverty with requests for donations from supporters. And, remarkably, it's working, at least to an extent. So, maybe he fleeced the rubes once and now he's back for another go-round. On the other hand, it could very well be true that he spent more money on the audit than he made, and that his business is in trouble. If so, that would mean he tried to run a multi-million-dollar grift, and instead got out-grifted by...someone else. And if that is the case, then it's definitely cause for some schadenfreude. (Z)

Hooray for Hollywood: Readers' Favorite Films (Nos. 10-1)

And finally we reveal the Top 10, including the #1 film, which, as we've already mentioned, outpaced all the others by a country mile. We had quite a few people guess as to the identity of the top film, but unless we missed a message, only L.R.H. in Oakland guessed right.

And speaking of guesses, we listed the years for the top 10 yesterday, which was a backdoor invite to readers to try to guess the 10 remaining members of the list. Quite a few people came very close, but the only two readers to correctly get all 10 were T.J.R. in Metuchen, NJ and D.M. in Oakland, CA.

Anyhow, here are the previous entries:

And now, the top 10:

  1. Pulp Fiction (1994; Quentin Tarantino, dir.): This movie played with time and played with our heads. Horrific things happen and we laugh at them. Out-of-sequence storytelling leaves us wondering how all this fits together—or if it does. Cult status is granted to Jules and Vincent and the Gimp and "Misirlou." The humor is dark and Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead. (B.A.R. in South Bend, IN)

  2. Star Wars (1977; George Lucas, dir.): Han shot first. (T.J. in Columbus, OH)

  3. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975; Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, dirs.): Are you suggesting coconuts migrate? (K.W. in Dungarvan, Ireland)

  4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; Stanley Kubrick, dir.): Science (as well as an attempt to portray it accurately), spirituality, hope, groundbreaking cinematic technique, etc. etc. ... it's all there! (M.F. in Memphis, TN)

  5. The Empire Strikes Back (1980; Irvin Kershner, dir.): In Star Wars, our heroes were falling through garbage chutes and playing video games against a Death Star that, frankly, didn't look all that dangerous. In Empire the danger began to feel real. My stomach was roiling throughout and I left the theater unable to get it out of my mind. (L.S. in Greensboro, NC)

  6. The Shawshank Redemption (1994; Frank Darabont, dir.): Everybody's innocent in here. Don't you know that? (D.H. in Boulder, CO)

  7. The Princess Bride (1987; Rob Reiner, dir.): I know every line, as does everyone in my family. And the book is even better. (A.C. in Kingston, MA)

  8. The Godfather (1972; Francis Ford Coppola, dir.): My last name ends in a vowel, so this is kind of a given. (J.B. in Springfield, MO)

  9. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981; Steven Spielberg, dir.): Because you absolutely, positively, have to watch Nazis melt away due to their hubris (a.k.a. "extreme schadenfreude"). (J.I. in San Francisco, CA)

  10. Casablanca (1942; Michael Curtiz, dir.): 80 years on, nothing compares to it. (R.S. in Tonawanda, NY)

And there you have it. There are actually four directors in the Top 10 who previously made the list (Spielberg, Coppola, Gilliam, and Kubrick) and seven making their first appearances. We've got a few follow-ups to this list next week, and then we will start the list of "movies everyone should see" the week after. So, there's still time to get your votes in for that. (V & Z)

And Now for Something Completely Different...

Reader L.E. in Putnam County, NY, writes:

As limericks meet with delay
poets do not know what to say--
did we make the cut,
or did you say "What?",
and throw all our verses away?

It's a fair point. We got a lot of good limericks, and we also got a lot of good comments for soon-to-be-parent C.S. in Linville. We are thinking about the best ways to present the material. Further, these things, and the movie content, are kinda supposed to be like dessert after a meal of heavy-duty political news. And we don't want to serve too much dessert in one day—it could give you an upset stomach. So, the limericks and comments are coming soon—thanks for being patient. (V & Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Nov25 Ahmaud Arbery's Murderers Are Convicted
Nov25 Democrats Warn Biden: It's Not Enough
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Nov25 The U.S. Has a New Ally in the War on Terror--The Taliban
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Nov25 Hooray for Hollywood: Readers' Favorite Films (Nos. 20-11)
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Nov24 Arbery Trial Goes to Jury
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Nov24 Hooray for Hollywood: Readers' Favorite Films (Nos. 30-21)
Nov23 It's the Economy, Stupid
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Nov23 Trump-Backed Senate Candidate Goes Belly Up
Nov23 Two More House Retirements
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Nov22 Update on Redistricting
Nov22 Sinema Is Adamantly against Modifying the Filibuster
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Nov19 One Day after Gosar Vote, He and Other Republicans Are Defiant
Nov19 RNC Chair Pushes Back against Trump, at Least a Little
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