Peter Roff is a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, writing regularly at our Thomas Jefferson Street blog. He is a senior fellow at the Institute for Liberty, a small government advocacy group, and at Let Freedom Ring, a conservative grass roots organization.
Most political forecasters are now looking seriously at the possibility that Republicans will win back control of Congress this year. They are seeing the forest but not the trees. The real battle to determine the nation's political alignment for at least the next decade is happening down ballot and below the radar.
By law, the results of the 2010 census will lead to a reshuffling of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. And this year's elections will in many cases determine who will have the authority to draw each state's new congressional map, which, in turn, will shape the political battlefield until the next census in 2020. Both parties are girding for the fight, but the GOP is poised to emerge with its strongest hand in decades.
Here's why: The new census data will be used to reallocate the seats in the House to match population changes over the last decade, a process called reapportionment. Each state's congressional district lines will also be redrawn, called redistricting. In most cases, the ability to control that process in a particular state is the privilege of the majority. That's why party committees, allied organizations, and interest groups sink millions of dollars into these fights to win key governorships and control of state legislative chambers. If one party can gain control of all the pens in a big state like Pennsylvania or Ohio, it gets to draw the lines. And it can be ruthless. After the 1980 census, California Democrats—led by the late Rep. Phil Burton—redrew the Golden State's House districts, plunging the GOP into permanent minority status there. And that was before the computer revolution allowed political strategists a far greater degree of gerrymandering precision. They can now select voters down to a neighborhood level when fine tuning a new district's partisan bent, adding to their ability to maximize their side's advantage. In 2003, the Texas Republicans' remap of congressional districts—drawn after the party won control of the legislature in 2002—took the Lone Star State's House delegation from 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans to a 21 to 11 advantage for the GOP.
Thanks to demographic trends, the GOP is well positioned for the next redistricting. Beginning in the 1970s, Americans began migrating from the largely Democratic industrial Midwest and Northeast to the emerging Republican strongholds of the South and Southwest, and House seats followed them. Over time, as the parties' positions on the left and right have hardened, the regional splits have become more pronounced.
The redistricting that followed the 1990 census produced a shift of as many as 30 seats from the Democrats to the GOP, helping set the stage for the Republican Party's landmark 1994 victories. According to the early projections for this year's census, a major partisan realignment is again in the offing. The states projected to gain seats are typically Republican at the presidential level. Nevada, Utah, Arizona, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Washington (the Democratic-leaning exception) are predicted to pick up one seat each, while Texas is expected to add four.
Republicans, who will most likely keep presiding over the governorship and the legislature in Texas, should be able to capitalize there. The same is true in Utah, for example, where the congressional delegation is split 2 to 1 in favor of the Republicans. The addition of one seat, plus the redrawing of the existing lines, could produce an all-GOP delegation there for the first time ever. Meanwhile, Republicans will likely wield the pen for the first time in places like Tennessee and perhaps Alabama. This will allow them to eke out one, two, or three additional seats even though the size of the congressional delegation remains the same.
Conversely, the states expected to lose seats—Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Louisiana (on track to drop one each), and Ohio (projected to drop two)—mostly trend Democratic. Even in those states, Republicans face only minimal potential problems. In New York, for example, it's a good bet that the Democrats will nab complete control of the process for the first time in decades, thanks to the GOP losing its state senate majority. But there really isn't much room for Democrats to hurt the Republicans, who currently hold just two of the state's 29 congressional seats. The loss of a seat in Massachusetts, which has no Republican representatives in the House, similarly can only hurt the Democrats in their drive to maintain or win back the majority. Even in the handful of states where the districts are drawn by a nonpartisan commission—like New Jersey and Arizona—it is hard to see how Democrats could make gains.