Forget the economy, health care, even which party controls Congress. The most far-reaching effect of the 2010 midterm elections could be felt at the state level. By casting their ballots in dozens of gubernatorial and hundreds of legislative races, voters will decide whether Democrats or Republicans dominate the redrawing of state and federal political borders for the new decade -- a process known as redistricting. And the results could be even more far-reaching for Democrats than the outcome of the midterm elections.
That's not hyperbole. Given the country's closely divided electorate, the political fortunes of each party chiefly hinge on how redistricting pans out. That, in turn, hinges on how well Democrats and Republicans fare at the state level. The reason: in most states, legislators are responsible for creating, and governors responsible for signing into law, redistricting plans that reflect population shifts documented in the census. The party in command has enormous clout.
With about a dozen of the nation's state legislatures closely split along partisan lines and 18 governor's races in the "toss up" category this year, big changes could be in store. Factoring in the tenuous political atmosphere adds even more spice to the mix. So far, the ground game is shaping up nicely for the GOP, but there are still fundraising and organizational storm clouds on the horizon.
The Cook Political Report lists five governorships now held by Democrats as either "leaning" Republican or "likely" Republican. Of those five states, four of the legislatures are Republican and one is split between the parties, giving the GOP a good chance to control the redistricting process. Conversely, Cook lists only one governor's race -- for Republican Linda Lingle's office in Hawaii -- as leaning in the Democrats' favor, and none in the "likely" or "solid" Democrat category. There are no redistricting implications, though, because the Aloha State redraws political lines by independent commission, not legislative edict.
In 17 state legislatures, meanwhile, Democrats maintain a slim advantage in at least one chamber. In a good Republican year, several of those could flip. Even if a Democrat occupies the governor's office or controls one legislative chamber, the GOP could significantly influence the process and curtail partisan gerrymandering by capturing at least part of the state government. Both national parties understand the implications, which is why they're pouring $20 million apiece into competitive legislative races, with an eye toward strengthening their hand in redistricting.
Aside from the favorable lineup of races, the political trend is also in Republicans' favor. Even in the strongly anti-GOP election year of 2008, Republicans managed to defend all of their governorships up for grabs except one in Missouri. Since then, Republicans have been victorious in special elections in Virginia and New Jersey, states where Democrats had a nearly decade-long winning streak in gubernatorial elections.
Reapportionment is another factor upping the stakes. That process moves congressional seats from states that lost population to states that gained. Here again, Republicans have reason to be optimistic. The Washington, D.C., based firm Polidata predicts that 10 states will gain at least one congressional seat and 10 lose at least one after the 2010 census. Of those, all of the losing states except one are in the predominantly Democratic northeast and upper Midwest. On the other hand, all but one of the states gaining seats is in the Republican-friendly Sunbelt, including a projected four-seat pickup for Texas.
The hands that redraw district borders are some of the most powerful in politics. Aside from a handful of state and federal requirements, lawmakers can finagle district lines however they choose. Legislative and congressional districts must be contiguous -- meaning all parts touch and none are detached -- and each must have an equal number of residents. The federal Voting Rights Act also ties legislators' hands by requiring them to draw some districts to grant minorities greater electoral power.
Beyond that, the majority party has a wide degree of latitude and the capacity to shut out the minority from the process. To top it off, advances in technology have made it possible to secure almost foolproof partisan advantage by drawing lines down to the minutest detail. The result: gerrymandering such as North Carolina's 12th Congressional District, alternatively called the "lightning bolt" and "spaghetti" district and dubbed "political pornography" by the Wall Street Journal.
Despite the favorable political tides, however, Republicans should be cautious. Democrats appear to have a better redistricting apparatus on the ground to prime for inevitable legal challenges, and the party seems to be outpacing Republicans in the fundraising department as well. Liberals don't want a repeat of the last round of redistricting, which led the GOP to historic gains in the 2002 midterms.
In addition, a number of states, including Colorado and California, are weighing ballot measures that would ease partisanship in redistricting. Advocates have long called for independent commissions to handle this important job, but since the lawmakers who benefit from gerrymandering control the process, the cause often gets trampled underfoot.
In the end, though, the political dynamics this year should encourage conservatives. At worst, the GOP will make inroads and expand its influence over the process. And it's a good thing, too. When the history books are closed, state-level races could be the untold story of 2010 -- a story that will be felt for years to come.
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