Dark money groups loom in Kansas redistricting fight

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As hundreds of Kansans poured into meeting rooms across the state to voice their opinions about redrawing election lines, a couple dark-money groups quietly watched it play out as they gear up for the redistricting fight ahead.

While Kansans turned out in varying degrees for 14 hearings – many with the same or similar talking points – Democratic and Republican dark-money groups maneuvered out of public view.

While so-called dark-money groups generally play a pivotal role in elections, they will be working behind the scenes as lawmakers in Kansas and nationally draw the election  boundaries that decide power in American and Kansas politics for the next decade.

“There’s no more important issue in state capitols nationwide than redistricting,” said David Daley, a senior fellow at FairVote, which advocates for ranked-choice voting.

David Daley

“Millions of dollars are going to be spent over the course of the next several months by Democrats, by Republicans, by other outside groups seeking to influence this,” he said.

“Whether these are dollars that will be spent on lobbying or litigation, it’s going to be an all-out war,” said Daley, author of a book about the 2010 redistricting process called “Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy.”

There are two major dark-money groups on either side of the aisle as the state heads into the heart of the redistricting battle next year.

Eric Holder

The Democratic efforts are led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, while the Republican efforts are concentrated in a private trust, which means it’s not required to make public information about its donors, expenses and tax records.

The National Republican Redistricting Trust is run by Adam Kincaid, who has worked as special projects director at the Republican National Committee and as deputy political director for the Republican Governors Association.

Kincaid also serves as the executive director of Fair Lines America, a 501(c)(3) organization. It raised about $950,000 in 2018, tax records show.

The trust also runs the National Republican Redistricting PAC, which raised about $19,000 during the last cycle and about $11,300 in the current one.

In Kansas, the Holder-affiliated group already has an established presence, while the role the national Republicans are playing is not as publicly defined.

“What our job is in every state in the country is to make sure that Republicans have the tools and resources they need to do their jobs, whether they need help finding lawyers or extra witnesses or people to draw their maps,” Kincaid told national reporters in a conference call on Thursday.

“Our job is to be a clearinghouse for them so they have what they need to do their jobs,” Kincaid said. “We’re not a lobbying firm. We don’t do the same sort of stuff.”

Kincaid drew a line between what the Republicans are doing in Kansas in contrast to how Democrats are approaching redistricting.

The Democrats are in Kansas, he said, “because they don’t have control.”

The Democrats are lined up with the National Redistricting Action Fund – a 501(c)(4) spinoff of Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

It already has a team of lobbyists that include former Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley’s chief staff Kerry Gooch, former Democratic Lt. Gov. Troy Findley and lobbyist Jennifer Crow.

Like the Republicans, the Democratic group can keep a lot of information out of public view, but there are some public records that show its activities.

A spokesman for the Holder dark-money group involved in Kansas – Harrell Kirstein – would not make anyone available for an interview for this story.

Holder’s Democratic Redistricting Committee was heavily invested in efforts last year to bust up the Republican supermajority in the Kansas Legislature, knowing that it would give Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly more leverage to veto new maps in 2022.

The committee portrayed itself as a “centralized hub for executing a comprehensive redistricting strategy that shifts the redistricting power, creating fair districts where Democrats can compete.”

It is organized as a 527 tax-exempt organization, which already has raised about $2.5 million in the first six months of this year, tax records show.

Last year, Holder’s group backed 12 candidates for the Kansas House and won seven of those campaigns but it still wasn’t enough to break up the supermajority.

It also backed 12 candidates in the Senate while winning six of those races as the Senate held onto its supermajority as well.

The Democratic Redistricting Committee also ran a political action committee that raised about $5.8 million during the 2020 election cycle.

So far during this cycle, it’s raised about $1.4 million, records show.

Now, another affiliated group – the National Redistricting Action Fund – is engaged in the redistricting efforts in Kansas and elsewhere.

It has already shown a willingness to go to court over redistricting.

Earlier this year, the group brought lawsuits against Minnesota, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, asking the courts to draw the new maps if divided governments in those states couldn’t agree on new election boundaries.

Another lawsuit was brought last week against Wisconsin, citing claims about an impasse similar to the issues raised in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

One of the law firms involved in that litigation – Perkins Coie – is the same one involved in a state lawsuit challenging the Kansas election laws passed last session.

Lawyers for Perkins Coie are litigating one of the laws that makes it illegal for someone to falsely represent themselves as an election official.

Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer and a leading expert on election law, chairs Perkins Coie’s political law group.

The National Redistricting Action Fund paid about $825,000 in fees to Perkins Coie in 2018, federal tax records show.

However, on Sunday, it was announced that Elias and 13 other lawyers were leaving Perkins Coie to start their own firm, the Elias Law Group.

The two lawyers from Perkins Coie working on the Kansas case were not among the new partners listed at the new Elias law firm.

The National Redistricting Action Fund raised about $4.1 million during 2018, according to the latest tax records available.

A national observer of redistricting – and Republicans inside the state – believe the Democrats are itching for a legal fight in Kansas.

They point to complaints about the hearing process – 14 public meetings packed into one week – and the possibility that Wyandotte and Johnson counties could be split apart in the 3rd Congressional District as signs of a legal battle ahead.

Throw in public criticism of former Senate President Susan Wagle’s comments about drawing four congressional districts that would elect Republicans and the foundation is now laid for a lawsuit regardless of what happens next year, they said.

Kirk Bado

“The situation in Kansas right now has all the hallmarks of Democrats laying the groundwork to challenge whatever the lines are going to be,” said Kirk Bado, the House campaign correspondent for National Journal’s Hotline.

Bado said he believes the courts figure into the overall Democratic strategy after they failed to gain ground in legislatures last year and, in the case of Kansas, failed to break up the Republican supermajority in the Legislature.

“It seems like the courts are going to play a bigger role in more states than they ever have before,” he said.

“After Democrats struck out in a lot of these state legislative races last year…I think it’s going to be part and parcel of the strategy,” he said.

“More often than not, the thinking is the courts can draw more favorable lines than anything by the Republicans.”

The legal sensitivity is clear with some lawmakers and consultants treading very carefully what they will say about drawing new lines.

One Democratic senator wouldn’t comment for fear of establishing a record for any possible court case.

One Republican consultant didn’t want to see any public comments used in the same way that Wagle’s remarks have been used over and over in Kansas and nationally.

Bado, who writes about redistricting nationally, believes Republican legislators across the country are being cautioned about getting too bold with their maps.

“They are trying to avoid lawsuits as much as possible, especially in those states where Republicans control the pencil and drawing the maps,” he said.

He said strategists are advising Republican lawmakers to stay within their state’s legal framework for drawing the maps.

“They are telling the map makers of the states to stay within the lanes of the law,” he said.

All of this activity is largely born out of the redistricting process after 2010 when Republicans recognized how they could use demographic shifts to change the political landscape to their political benefit.

“Democrats got caught asleep at the wheel in 2010,” Daley, the redistricting author, said.

“Republicans recognized that 2010 was a redistricting year and if they had good success down ballot in state legislative races, they would be able to etch an advantage into congressional and state legislative maps for a decade,” he said.

“Democrats, I don’t think, fully understood what hit them until 2012,” he said.

The Democrats acknowledge the beating they took after redistricting, using it as one of their talking points.

Holder’s group says that 1.4 million more Americans voted for Democrats for Congress in 2012, but Republicans won a 33-seat majority in Congress.

And again in 2016, despite winning fewer than half of all votes for Congress, Republicans again won a 33-seat majority, his group said.

“Democrats spent the last decade paying for their mistakes in 2010 and began organizing for 2020 in order to try and make up for what happened last time,” Daley said.

But Daley said Democrats aren’t the only ones amped up for the fight ahead, especially since they only hold an eight-seat majority the U.S. House.

He believes that Republicans behind the scenes are trying to calculate how a new 3rd Congressional District could be drawn in way that would hurt Democratic Congreswoman Sharice Davids’ chances of winning relection.

“There are so few districts that are competitive around the country,” he said.

“Parties are really going to be chasing hard after any district that they can flip through redistricting. If they can exploit complete control over that process, they’re going to do so,” Daley said.

“Both sides certainly are ready, well-funded and well-armed in this battle.”