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Cartographic Clout: GOP, Democrats Vie for Redistricting Dominance

October 20, 2010 at 5:14 PM EST
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With new Census numbers being crunched, state legislatures are poised to redraw America's political maps for the next decade. Kwame Holman reports on the battle between Republicans and Democrats to win control of statehouses across the country as population shifts promise to shake up some congressional districts.
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JIM LEHRER: And now to some U.S. campaign politics.

Both major political parties are waging a heated below-the-radar battle to win control of statehouses across the country. That’s because, with the new census numbers, state legislators are poised to redraw America’s political map.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has the latest installment of our Vote 2010 coverage.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You can’t have the keys back! You don’t know how to drive!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

KWAME HOLMAN: The intense final days of the midterm campaign are focused on which party will control the next Congress. But on a quiet a street a few miles from the U.S. Capitol, the focus is on winning state legislatures, because, this year, they could determine control of the next several congresses.

Longtime Republican operative Ed Gillespie is leading the GOP’s push to win majorities in state house and senate chambers.

ED GILLESPIE, Former Republican National Committee Chairman: A year that ends in zero, it is also very important in terms of control of Congress, because those legislators who are elected this year will draw the congressional district lines for a decade in most states.

KWAME HOLMAN: Population data from the just-completed 2010 census now is being computed, and the results will be used by state legislatures to draw the maps that make up U.S. House districts.

TOM BONIER, chief operating officer, National Committee for an Effective Congress: This is the most purely political process in politics.

KWAME HOLMAN: In downtown Washington, Tom Bonier was helping the Democrats’ state legislative operation get ready for the map-drawing process.

The biggest changes in House districts are likely in states that lose or gain population and, therefore, their allotment of House seats. According to a study by Election Data Services based on census estimates, 12 congressional seats will shift from states in the Midwest and Northeast to states that are growing faster in the South and West.

Bonier says Bonier says Republicans took advantage after the last post-census re-map.

TOM BONIER: The Republican strategy in 2002, where they controlled the process, in a significant number of states and really in the important states that were gaining and losing congressional districts — Ohio lost a congressional district in 2002 — is, they packed Democrats into as few congressional districts as possible, which would allow them in the end to control more congressional districts.

KWAME HOLMAN: With the national political winds at their backs, Republicans are aiming to do that again. And they have their eyes on a swathe of Midwestern states where GOP candidates are poised to win governorships. Governors in most states have power to approve congressional maps.

ED GILLESPIE: I suspect we will see a net gain of about eight governorships, and I would project about 10 legislative chambers that flip from Democratic to Republican, and none that flip from Republican to Democrat. That could end up translating into control of 15 to 25 U.S. House seats for the next five cycles.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats have their own target list. Michael Sargeant directs the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

MICHAEL SARGEANT, executive director, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee: Democrats have a great opportunity in the state of Texas. Democrats are only down four seats in the statehouse. The state of Texas will — is projected to gain up to four new congressional seats.

And if Democrats can make gains and take the Texas House, they will have a say in what the upcoming state congressional map, as well as state legislative map, looks like for the next decade.

NARRATOR: You’re angry, with good reason.

KWAME HOLMAN: The potential power to redraw congressional districts has injected unheard-of spending into this year’s state legislative races, propelling usually-obscure state legislators into their own TV ads.

NARRATOR: Sensible solution to 280.

NARRATOR: Real sweet.

VIRGINIA SWEET (D-Ala.), statehouse candidate: I’m Virginia Sweet, asking for your vote.

KWAME HOLMAN: Next year, state legislatures will redraw congressional maps, giving the party that controls those state legislatures the power to influence who gets elected to Congress for the next decade.

So, party strategists also are concentrating on new technologies for drawing district maps.

TOM BONIER: If you look at the advances that have been made over the last decade — and they’re not insignificant — there are really two areas that will have an impact in this round of redistricting. There are advances in the technology, the fact that we’re sitting here on a laptop, and have data down to the block level. And you have got tens of thousands of blocks in Ohio.

And they’re all loaded in here. And, as you can see, if I move things around, it changes very quickly. There’s no lag time. And that’s a big advance over the last 10 years. It makes it faster. It makes it easier, which means you can explore more alternatives.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bonier says, in partisan redistricting, Democrats have a natural disadvantage.

TOM BONIER: Democratic voters tend to live in more densely populated areas. Republicans tend to live more spread out, more dispersed. You will have areas that are 90 percent Democratic. You don’t really come across areas of geography that are 90 percent Republican.

From a Republican perspective, yes, absolutely. It allows them to go down to the block level and even, in some cases — and this happened in a handful of states 10 years ago — the Republicans would split blocks right down the middle to carve houses out of districts.

So, with the advances in data that have occurred in the last decade, I think you will see more of that happening, rather than less.

KWAME HOLMAN: There have been efforts to end so-called gerrymandering and take partisanship out of the redistricting process.

Political independent and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in Florida last week to support a hotly contested ballot initiative that would prohibit that state’s partisan redistricting.

But veteran political operatives acknowledge, either party’s advantage in controlling the House of Representatives through redistricting may not be as enduring as in the past.

ED GILLESPIE: First of all, there’s a growing number of independents in the political process today. You know, a plurality oftentimes identify themselves as independent. And they swing, you know, from one party to the other, so pretty unpredictable, that big chunk of voters, that they’re going to be reliable, you know, five cycles down the line.

Secondly, we’re a country of great mobility, and people move for jobs. People move for retirement, people constantly moving in and out. It’s not often anymore that you will find a family in the same place for three generations of family in a town. And so that affects it as well.

But, you know, it’s probably reliable for at least two or three cycles, before the — you know, before the hold from the redistricting starts to fade.

TOM BONIER: Redistricting plays a very important role in the process. But, in the end, the voters will have their say in who represents them.

KWAME HOLMAN: The state legislative candidates next Tuesday will be down-the-ballot from the high-profile congressional and governor’s contests. But the state races will share in one storyline of this political season: Republicans will have outspent Democrats to win them.