Congressional Redistricting, the Ultimate Political Prize

Every so often an important political issue flies "under the radar screen."

In other words, it's not considered important enough for the national press to spend any time covering it. A perfect example is the next round of redistricting scheduled for 2011.

This is the ultimate political contest, with all the chips on the table. And the contest is already in progress, the national press notwithstanding.

It’s all about whom controls state legislatures across the country and which party controls governor’s offices in various states. And it’s about which party stands for racial justice and which party attempts to maximize its advantage through racially discriminatory plans.

While a few states now use non-partisan commissions to draw Congressional districts, the great majority of Congressional districts will still be drawn by state legislatures following the 2010 census. In most states, the governor still has a veto over Congressional redistricting plans.

If one party controls both houses of a state’s legislature and the governor’s office, it can pretty well have its way in drawing Congressional lines that will be in place for the next decade. This is where gerrymandering often comes into play…stacking districts to favor one party over the other.

If either party can control enough states to stack the deck, elections for control of Congress are often over before the first vote is ever cast.

During the last round of redistricting in 2001, Republicans had total control of the process in key states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. They used that control to maximize the number of Republican seats in each state. They later did the same thing in Texas following the 2002 elections which gave them total control of that state’s government for the first time. They used that control to re-draw Texas districts for the second time in the decade (an unprecedented move until that time).

In the process, they disenfranchised thousands of black and Hispanic voters.

Republicans during the past two cycles (1992 and 2002) also did something even worse than just using raw power for partisan gain. They actively and aggressively discriminated against racial minorities by attempting to pack as many as possible into as few districts as possible, particularly in the South.

Republicans basically said to the African American community, “we will give you one or two sure things but at the same time we will vastly dilute your influence in many of the remaining districts.”

This was cynicism at its height. Democrats, on the other hand, have stood for racial justice and maximizing minority influence.

The first shot in the redistricting wars was fired Tuesday, Nov. 6 when a few states held odd-year elections. Democrats in Virginia captured the State Senate, giving them control of one of that state’s two legislative chambers. That’s critical because now Democrats will have a seat at the table in Virginia even if Republicans take back the governor’s office in 2009.

The next shots will be fired in November of 2008 when control of virtually every state legislature will be determined. State senators elected in 2008 will have four-year terms in most states and thus will still be in office in 2011 when the Congressional lines are drawn. Should control of a State House change hands in 2008, the party that wins will then have a leg up for retaining control in 2010 (most State House members are elected every two years).

Also, governorships will be determined in 11 states in 2008, including Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana -- all states that will face potentially difficult redistricting battles. A total of 36 governorships will be at stake in 2010, including redistricting battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Florida. Current Democratic governors in Pennsylvania and Michigan are term-limited and cannot run for re-election in 2010.

The real redistricting battles will occur in states that are slated to gain or lose seats as a result of the 2010 census because some changes will have to occur in current Congressional delegations in those states. States projected to lose seats after the 2010 census are New York (-2), Ohio (-2), Illinois (-1), Iowa (-1), Louisiana (-1), Massachusetts (-1). Michigan (-1), Missouri (-1) and Pennsylvania (-1).

States projected to gain seats after the 2010 census include Texas (+3), Arizona (+2), Florida (+2), California (+1), Georgia (+1), Nevada (+1) and Utah (+1).

You will notice a trend. The states projected to lose seats are generally in the Rust Belt and have quite a few Democratic Congressmen. The states projected to gain seats are primarily in the Sun Belt and are states that have been trending Republican in recent elections.

Thus, Democrats must fight to stay even in the Rust Belt and Republicans have the opportunity to pick up new seats in the Sun Belt. Also, Democrats may have the chance to undo Republican gerrymanders in Michigan and Pennsylvania if they retake control of both legislative houses in those states.

The exception to all this may be Texas. Though the state has been voting Republican in recent years and though the majority of the current Congressional delegation is Republican, at least some of the new seats may wind up being won by Democrats since there has been such explosive growth among Democratic leaning Hispanics.

Also, it is quite possible that Democrats will re-take control of the Texas State House in either 2008 or 2010, giving them a seat at the redistricting table.

It’s not too early to start keeping score. This is like the three-dimensional chess of Star Trek. There are lots of moving pieces with a major component of racial politics thrown in. The action will occur on several levels over a period of years.

The action may be out of the public eye right now but that does not mean that it isn’t deadly serious.

Respond to the Writer

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.