- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2010

NEW YORK | Usually out of the national spotlight, state legislative races are taking on new prominence this year. The reason? It’s a year ending in a zero, when U.S. census results are the cue for state lawmakers to draw new boundaries for congressional districts across the country.

“State legislators will have the pen in their hands,” says former Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, who heads the national redistricting effort for the Republican State Leadership Committee.

By law, the nation’s 435 U.S. House districts must be roughly equal in population, which means some of their boundaries must be redrawn whenever the census reveals significant population shifts over the past decade.

The task is done by state lawmakers and governors in most states, and the political party that controls the state legislature has the edge in drawing new boundaries. Democrats currently hold the advantage, controlling 60 of 98 state House and Senate chambers.

But with the national political environment appearing to favor the GOP, Republicans predict they could capture as many as 15 of those chambers. Such a shift could lead to the creation of several new Republican-leaning U.S. House districts — shifting the balance of power as well as the electoral map going into the 2012 presidential contest.

“Since Democrats are certain to lose a good chunk of their majority in the House this year, a margin of five or ten new seats could be very consequential,” said Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution. Partisan line-drawing in state legislatures “could mean the difference between a party’s majority and minority status,” he said.

Democrats are more optimistic about their chances in the states, noting they gained legislative seats this year in special elections in GOP-leaning areas of Virginia and Kentucky, even as approval ratings for President Obama and Democrats in Congress sagged.

“We’ve been successful at the state legislative level whether it’s a good year or a bad year for Democrats nationally,” said Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

But when voters are angry at government, their ire is directed at those in charge. Mr. Sargeant acknowledged a special burden exists for Democrats because they control more state House and Senate chambers than Republicans. “Times are tough, and people are angry, and legislators are making tough decisions,” he said.

There are two factors that can make a state a special target for attention from the national parties in this year’s statehouse elections: whether it is likely to gain or lose House seats because of population shifts, and whether its legislature is controlled by a narrow majority. Both circumstances magnify the chances for partisan gains in redistricting.

Six states — Nevada, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania — fall into both categories.

Redistricting is particularly crucial for the 18 states most likely to gain or lose House seats, based on national population shifts detected by the census. Legislatures in growing states will largely determine the partisan composition of brand-new districts, while lawmakers in states that are losing seats will determine how multiple districts are merged.

As population continues to shift toward the Sun Belt in the South and Southwest, states in the Northeast and industrial Midwest including Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois are expected to lose one seat apiece, while Ohio could lose two. States in the South and West, like Georgia, Nevada and New Mexico, are expected to pick up at least one seat each.

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