Redistricting Heightens the National Political Stakes for State Races

Party gains at the state level will affect the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts.

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Every 10 years, the hierarchy of national politics is turned on its head. It's a time when governors and state legislators take control of jobs on Capitol Hill, and when politicians have the ability to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. It's a period of heightened political stakes, when election results affect not just the current election cycle but, potentially, elections over the coming decade. The time for redistricting is near.

With partisanship and gridlock already at a peak in Washington, the two rival political parties each hope to have an edge going into the redistricting process that follows the 2010 census. This advantage, in most states, will depend on who controls the state legislatures, which redraw voting district lines to account for population changes, and who holds veto power as governor. So as Americans head to the polls in November, experts say that they should know that whom they choose for their state seats now could affect who holds congressional seats in the future. "Redistricting determines who's in power," says the Campaign Legal Center's Gerry Hebert. "It's the most political thing that [state] legislatures do."

States redraw their congressional districts at least once every 10 years, following the decennial census, to ensure that each citizen's vote counts as much as the next. This follows the Constitution's "one man, one vote" principle. In theory, redistricting should simply account for population shifts; it nevertheless has evolved into a complex political tool by which the controlling party games the system to try to create significant advantages for its candidates.

Observers recall that after the 2000 census, Republicans had an edge over Democrats in the redistricting process, which helped them gain a number of congressional seats in the decade's early election cycles. Democrats are more prepared this time around, says Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Both political parties have several groups committed to strategic aspects of redistricting—from winning seats in the states' chambers to analyzing population data and anticipating court battles over redrawn district lines. Organizations like the DLCC and its GOP counterpart, the Republican State Leadership Committee, work on behalf of the parties to seek the best chances possible for future election cycles.

According to Tom Bonier, the chief operations officer for the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a Democratic-allied group, redistricting strategists target certain states based on size—after all, the more total congressional seats, the better—and the likelihood that their favored party can gain control over at least one of the three components responsible for redistricting, namely, governorship, state Senate, and state House. "It doesn't really matter if you control one of three versus two of three, but the difference between controlling none and one is big," says Bonier. The difference is between getting entirely shut out or having a seat at the table and being able to force a compromise, he says. "Conversely, the difference between controlling two of three and three of three is big, too."

States that stand to gain or lose seats as a result of the census reapportionment will also be more highly targeted since their district lines generally undergo more drastic changes. According to preliminary estimates, more of the typically Democratic states stand to lose seats in redistricting next year than those which tend to vote Republican.

Given those conditions, states with competitive governor's races in 2010—such as California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan—are high on strategists' lists, Bonier says. In California, though, taking control of the state's top seat could be inconsequential if voters pass a ballot proposition in November that would assign redistricting power for congressional districts to a nonpartisan commission. About a dozen states have already adopted similar commissions to create fairer maps.