Midterm Elections Play Major Role In Redistricting
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In most years, big political players would pay little attention to the roughly 6,000 campaigns for seats in state legislatures around the country. But this year is different. NPR's Mara Liasson explains.
MARA LIASSON: I'm standing in Wayne, Pennsylvania in the 161st state assembly district. This fall, this district will be the site of one of the most consequential races that you probably have never heard of.
That's because if Pennsylvania State House District 161 flips from Democrat to Republican, the GOP in Pennsylvania could be on their way to controlling both branches of the state legislature. And that could have a profound impact on national politics.
HAROLD ICKES: Why? Because redistricting will occur.
LIASSON: Veteran Democratic operative Harold Ickes.
ICKES: State legislators and governors have a very major effect on the redistricting plans that will be enacted next year in time for the 2012 elections.
LIASSON: What's redistricting? The constitution requires that every 10 years after the census count is taken, state legislatures redraw the boundaries of congressional districts. Some states will lose a couple of U.S. House seats, others will gain a few. In most, the redistricting process occurs behind closed doors with no public input. Controlling it is one of the biggest prizes this year. That explains the involvement of national partisan heavyweights like Ickes and his counterpart, former Republican Party chair Ed Gillespie.
ED GILLESPIE: In most states, whichever party controls the State House and Senate and the governorship will be able to maximize their party's representation in Congress.
LIASSON: In Ohio, for example - a state that will probably lose congressional districts - it could come down to this: whose district will disappear, John Boehner's or Dennis Kucinich's?
Gillespie understands what happens when state legislators sit down to draw those congressional district lines. They fire up their computer programs and instead of voters choosing politicians, in this case the politicians get to choose their own voters.
GILLESPIE: The chairman of the redistricting committee who is drawing the lines then needs good solid data that says here's where Republicans live and here's where Democrats live and if you draw the lines accordingly you can maximize your gains.
LIASSON: As Harold Ickes explains, this is partisan politics at its purest - none of the finer points about issues or even ideology, just a bare-knuckled effort to get more members of your own team into safe congressional seats.
ICKES: Pure politics, and a precinct here and a precinct there. If you control the process, before you know it you can shift a marginal Democratic district to a Republican district or vice versa.
LIASSON: Ickes' project is called SuRGe - Stop Republican Gerrymandering. And as the title suggests, Democrats who happily gerrymandered to their own advantage in the past are now playing defense in the battle for state legislatures, just as they are everywhere else this year.
TIM STOREY: And it does appear that the Republicans will be in the best position, from a partisan standpoint, with relation to redistricting, that they have ever enjoyed.
LIASSON: That's Tim Storey, who tracks these races for the National Council of State Legislatures.
STOREY: So if there's a strong wave in the direction of the GOP, as it appears there will be, they're going to be in position to perhaps have unilateral control of drawing maybe as many as 150 or 160 U.S. House seats.
LIASSON: That would allow the GOP to put those seats out of reach for Democrats, not just for 2012 but for the next 10 years. It's why both parties are each spending tens of millions of dollars on these state races. The beauty of it from an operative's point of view is that this battle can be funded through non-federal campaign donations. That means unlike federal campaign contributions, this political money is mostly unlimited and undisclosed. Here's the pitch Republican Ed Gillespie makes to potential donors.
GILLESPIE: Now, if you were to fight those seats out cycle by cycle every two years in competitive congressional races, you'd probably have to spend over $200 million in federal money, which is harder to raise, versus the $18 million that we're going to spend to try to win the seats to draw those districts in non-federal money in this election year. So you may not always care about who controls the Indiana State House or the Ohio State House or the Wisconsin State Senate, but this year you should.
LIASSON: Or, as Gillespie likes to tell his big Republican donors, money spent on state races, like Pennsylvania House District 161, is the gift that keeps on giving.
GILLESPIE: If you can get this right in 2010, it'll have a big impact in 2012, in 2014, '16, '18, '20.
LIASSON: All the way to 2020, when the next census occurs and a new round of redistricting gives both parties another shot.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.