The States: A new newsletter from outside the Beltway

Believing in The States. Photo via Flickr CC by Rachel Kramer.

On Medium today, on TinyLetter soon. PLEASE SIGN UP FOR THIS NEWSLETTER FOR AN OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY PERSPECTIVE HERE.

We have become saturated with noise from Washington, D.C. There’s no need to explain that further, except to point out that we the media are making some of the same mistakes we did in 2016 by failing to understand the Trump candidacy-turned-presidency, regardless of his administration’s day-to-day stumbles. Not so long ago, just after the election, we the media had approximately 23 hours of guilt-ridden introspection, which produced, memorably for me, a letter from the New York Times executives sort of apologizing for failing to understand the electorate and predict the election …but then mostly congratulating themselves on a job well done.

Well, this is going to be my small and understated effort to stop bitching and do something about it while experimenting with the old-fashioned turned new-fashioned newsletter. I have struggled with this, at first putting out content almost solely about the Midwest in an effort get more grounded in my new home after two years as a political reporter in South Carolina. So this is an effort to achieve the best of both worlds. My partial roots and career south of the Mason-Dixon has taught me that the roots of America’s original sin in the form of slavery and the resulting politics of the Confederacy — that are still very much with us today, directly and indirectly — means that region holds outsize influence far beyond its electoral significance. It also gives us a better window into the present and future shape of the Republican Party, which controls not only the White House, U.S. Senate and U.S. House, but 25 state governments. The GOP agenda seems stalled in Congress (mostly — we’ll see about healthcare) but it is moving full steam ahead in people’s lives through state and local governments that have reshaped the country in the party’s image.

(Side note: How did they do it? Just in time, WaPo’s James Hohmann explains how the Koch network focused on state and local races.)

State governments and party control. Via Wikipedia.

The national media, in general, doesn’t give a shit about the South on a regular basis. That’s not because they’re a bunch of New York and Washington-spawned Yankees (although they are, and there’s nothing wrong with that … I HEART NYC and regional difference is overhyped) it’s because conventional or traditional wisdom dictates that journalists cover a) major population centers b) politically, those place that matter most to electing the president, and the South is mostly GOP red no matter what and c) because the South seems like Mars to the average editor and reporter based in those media epicenters.

There are national clarifying moments along the way: Georgia’s sixth congressional election let the media try to figure out the future of the Democratic Party, an important discussion indeed, but we mostly got talking points afterward.

That kind of sweeping national coverage — or coverage of what Trump and his White House are doing — is important. There are a million or so 20-somethings running around Capitol Hill with recorders trying not to trip senators, and we need them there. I used to be one of them. But to move the ball forward and to understand the seismic shift that begot Trump — who, I would argue, is the end result of what George Packer called The Unwinding — we need to better understand how the plates are shifting and where the next earthquake will come from. If it comes from Washington, we’ll see it coming because the words and images will pour over us like locusts. If it comes from somewhere else — and make no mistake that it will — it’ll have unforeseen results we won’t see coming and we’ll talk about how we should have paid more attention.

All that to say: I’m planning to carefully select stories each week that give us a little peak behind the curtain of key states in the Midwest, which chooses the president, really, due to its influence in the primaries and number of swing states, and the South. Through Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia (which will be a swing state soon enough) we can better understand the next Unwinding. I’m adding my home state of Illinois, the home of the Midwest’s urban epicenter, Chicago, and as good an example as any of America’s urban-rural divide and a place whose politics is completely broken in a way that is, unfortunately, somewhat typical today.

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A preview:

Illinois

I have to start in Illinois this week not only because I’m in Chicago, but also because it is home to perhaps the craziest and under-covered political story happening right now: the possibility the state could end the week with two straight years without a state budget. This is, quite literally, the only real responsibility state elected officials have and there isn’t an editorial writer, reporter or lay person (that I know of) who thinks the state without any budget at all is better off. It’s times like these when you wonder if literally the entire will of the people wants a deal, what is the silent majority that’s really running things hiding?

The state is in abysmal shape. The Tribune’s John Kass hilariously argues that Chicago should just become “South Milwaukee” and cede the rest of Illinois to whomever wants it from the surrounding states. (Good luck taking on our $251 billion (!!!) in unfunded union pension liabilities.)

Illinois politics is dominated by two people: House Speaker Mike Madigan (D)and Gov. Bruce Rauner (R). Madigan has consolidated his power in Democratic politics to the point where most regard him as untouchable; people in his small Chicago district keep re-electing him.

But what is Rauner thinking? The Republican (yes, voters in a blue state gave a Republican a chance after a string of corruption scandals) is running in what would normally be a difficult place to hold onto office for someone from that party. He’ll face one of several billionaire Democrats in 2018, a race that promises to be as nasty as any and with millions already being teed up for attack ads. Now the state’s municipal bonds face junk status if lawmakers don’t pass a budget by the end of the week. Not a good look for any state but especially for a governor who promised fiscal restraint and a new way.

Crain’s Greg Hinz surmises:

I suspect Gov. Bruce Rauner sometimes sees himself in that mold, an undeterrable sort who will do whatever it takes to stop corrupt unions and their political toadies. At times, though, he strikes me more as President Donald Trump: vain, obsessive and mercurial, so utterly caught up in his ego-heavy agenda that he has lost track of what counts and whether the cost of victory is too high.
Which one is Rauner? We’re about to find out.

And Crain’s also tells the Wall Street Journal to drop dead with its partisan advice. Real Clear Politics compares IL to Puerto Rico and Greece. We’ll know more by the end of Friday.

Georgia

I was on the road last week when the results rolled in from the sixth district’s special election, and one of the most expenses races in House history wrapped up with a win for the GOP. The spin machine began immediately from Democrats. The real lessons from the Sixth Congressional Race, the pundits argued, is that candidate Jon Ossoff should have gone harder on Trump and tacked left. But here’s the cold hard math from the AJC, with one caveat from me: As we showed electing and re-electing Barack Obama twice followed by Donald Trump, Americans aren’t nearly as partisan as they’re made out to be. Still, some good analysis here:

Before the vote, one pollster compared the turnout to a bell-curve: Extremely low or high turnout would help Ossoff, but that anything closer to traditional levels would buoy Handel.
Ossoff’s campaign, though, had already quietly charted a red-line: His strategists calculated that one quarter-million votes or above would spell doom. Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the district, and a high turnout meant both sides were energized.
The election drew nearly 260,000 votes. As Ossoff pollster John Anzalone told Politico: “We just ran out of Democrats and independents.”

Up next? Georgia’s governor’s race is the real bellwether for the future of both parties, an Investors Business Daily columnist argues.

Gerrymandering

All eyes will soon be on Wisconsin’s gerrymandering situation, where political scientists and lawyers hope they’ve found the magic formula to get the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. They’ll do that sometime after September, the court announced. On its face, gerrymandering seems about as undemocratic a practice as anything: political parties can’t draw legislative districts, by law, that take into account race. But drawing districts to pack Republicans or Democrats into districts to make it easy or impossible for the opposite party to take control? That’s allowed.

But the Wisconsin case could change all that. And while both parties gerrymander, because Republicans gained majorities in dozens of states after the 2010 elections — which coincided with the Census and redrawing of legislative boundaries around the country — they have the most to lose.

The Associated Press has done excellent work on this issue. North Carolina has the starkest GOP advantage, the AP found.

In North Carolina, about 2.4 million votes overall were cast for Republicans in the state’s 2016 congressional races, compared to about 2.1 million Democratic votes. Yet the congressional delegation has a much more lopsided 10–3 split in favor of Republicans. The study calculated that the GOP won at least two more seats than what would be expected based on its share of the statewide vote.

The AP’s national analysis includes extreme gerrymandering in Michigan and Wisconsin.

A separate statistical analysis conducted for AP by the Princeton University Gerrymandering Project found that the extreme Republican advantages in some states were no fluke. The Republican edge in Michigan’s state House districts had only a 1-in-16,000 probability of occurring by chance; in Wisconsin’s Assembly districts, there was a mere 1-in-60,000 likelihood of it happening randomly, the analysis found.

The GOP argument? They won the elections fair and square and all this amounts to sour grapes from Democrats. The Supreme Court will decide.

Healthcare

As we sit here today, a vote on the U.S. Senate’s healthcare bill has been delayed. That’s because of Republicans like Ohio’s Rob Portman, who has been under increasing pressure. He’s a ‘no’ vote so far.

The Virginia governor’s election will feature two “establishment” candidates — Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam. But it was oh-so-close for Northam, who ran against Corey Stewart, who ran a Trumpian-esque campaign. Stewart lost by less than 5,000 votes.

Breitbart has an interesting breakdown of how Stewart’s political consultants managed his campaign like a viral video.

“We have to break out of this mold, and this idea that candidate should appear on camera in a 30 second scripted video, because people don’t respond to it anymore,” one of his campaign consultants said.

I imagine it’s a script that’s going to be repeated elsewhere.

In Conclusion…

I’ll make this pact — I’m going to try to get beyond the headline as much as possible and focus on areas of the country that matter both in presidential elections and, of course, every day. I hope it will give me, and you, a better sense of what’s happening on the ground and the events that are going to shape this country’s future.

Any advice, tips, suggestions, email me: borden.jeremy@gmail.com.

I’m Jeremy Borden, an independent journalist, writer and entrepreneur in Chicago focused on criminal justice and politics, with an occasional foray into business, sports and other topics. Contact me with any advice, tips, arguments at borden.jeremy@gmail.com. I blog at Untold Story story — explained here. Subscribe (tell your friends!) for news on The States.

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