House party turnover depends on stoking the base, fixing the lines

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Two more national trends to watch as Democrats' chances in individual House races become more clear: how the parties energize their respective bases and the effect of gerrymandering following the 2000 census.

Issue 1: Presidential adviser Karl Rove masterfully placed antigay marriage constitutional amendments on the ballot in 11 states in '04 to energize evangelical and conservative voters and to get them to the polls in swing states. Guess what? It worked. Guess again: In 2006, evangelicals are disappointed with their president for a series of embarrassing missteps (to wit, lying about WMD and the Valerie Plame leak) and for not toeing a conservative-enough political agenda. Republican strategists worry that lacking in energy, their base won't turn out for off-year congressional elections. Democrats have also thumbed rides on the amendment bandwagon this year by pressing for voter initiatives on minimum-wage laws and stem cell research in a number of states. So at this point in the process, it's simply too early for even an educated guess which side's base is more energized.

Issue 2: gerrymandering. Even his detractors in both parties have to admit former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican, did a brilliant job in 1994 of taking back the House for his party. His 40-seat pickup was the result of years of finding, grooming, and funding strong Republican candidates for congressional office.

Democrats are hoping 2006 will be their payback year. They've aggressively recruited Iraq war veterans to run for open seats. But redistricting following the 2000 census may keep Republicans in power. The Democratic Leadership Council's Web site admits that "the overriding obstacle to a Democratic takeover of the House [in 2002] was set in place long before the midterm election campaigns – by the congressional reapportionment and redistricting after the 2000 census. In fact, this process gave Republicans an advantage that will be difficult for Democrats to overcome before the next decennial redistricting."

To wit, Democrats may have to wait until the 2012 elections–after the result of 2010 gerrymandering takes effect–before they even have a shot at taking back Congress. And that assumes they'll have taken back control of a number of key state legislatures between now and then.