Census data offers Republicans the chance to solidify hold on House

New data released Tuesday by the Census Bureau shows sizable shifts in population from Democratic-leaning states in the Industrial Midwest to Republican-leaning states in the Sun Belt.

That translates to fresh political opportunity for Republicans who, after netting 63 House seats in the 2010 election, stand to solidify their majority in Congress during the upcoming round of redistricting.

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In all, 12 House seats shifted.

The biggest gain, as expected, was in the state of Texas, which will have four new House seats. The only other state netting more than one additional seat is Florida, which was awarded two new seats Tuesday.

The biggest losers this round are Ohio, a presidential battleground state, and heavily Democratic New York — both states will lose two seats.

Another eight states will lose one seat — Illinois, New Jersey, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Missouri and Massachusetts.

Six states are gaining just a single seat — Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, South Carolina, Utah and Washington state.

Minnesota barely missed losing a House seat. It received the 435th seat that was appropriated, which North Carolina missed out on by about 15,700 people.

The five most populous states, according to the 2010 population count are California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.

Also announced was the total U.S. population: 308,745,538. That's a 9.7 percent increase from the 2000 population count.

The population growth varies significantly by region, with the South seeing 14.3 percent growth over the last 10 years and the West seeing 13.8 percent growth. That compares to 3.2 percent growth in the Northeast and 3.9 percent growth in the Midwest.

The state that saw the largest percentage of population increase was Nevada, which grew by 35.1 percent. Michigan is the only state to see a negative rate of growth, percentage-wise, declining by just under one percent.

The five states with the slowest rate of population growth over the past decade were Michigan, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Ohio and New York.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke touted an efficient and successful Census process that far exceeded the "pessimistic predictions" surrounding its conduct.

The 2010 Census came in $1.87 billion under budget, according to Locke — 25 percent of the total amount allocated by Congress. And 74 percent of the nation mailed back their Census forms, according to the bureau.

The release of the apportionment numbers marks the start of the more contentious stage of the decennial process — the carving up and mapping out of the nation's 435 House districts.

That a number of Republican-heavy states would gain House seats and several heavily-Democratic states would lose seats in the apportionment process was a certainty — the suspense was over just how many seats a handful of states stood to gain or lose.  

On top of the population shifts, Republicans saw massive gains on the state legislative and gubernatorial levels in 2010, leaving them largely in control of the redistricting process in key states like Texas and Pennsylvania.  

The new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the release of Census data is far from a disaster for Democrats. 

"Today's release of U.S. Census data pours cold water on Republican's hype that redistricting is a disaster for Democrats," Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Tuesday. “Democratic communities and constituencies have grown in size in states like Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Washington. In states that will lose a seat, the number of Republicans who will be competing with each other creates opportunities for House Democrats.”

Tuesday's announcement doesn't provide a full picture of the redistricting process. It won't be until early next spring, when the Census Bureau releases its detailed state-by-state population data, that it will be clear where the population gains or losses have occurred within states and districts, which could make it harder to gerrymander some maps.

"This doesn't look favorable to Democrats, certainly," said professor Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert at George Mason University. "But when we look deeper into the numbers, it's probably not going to be as bad as you might think."

McDonald said that even though Republicans will largely control the redistricting process in key states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are set to lose House seats, protecting all of the party's incumbents will prove difficult.

Large gains by the Republicans on the congressional level in both states will likely make for some nervous GOP freshmen, whose districts may be carved up or eliminated.

"There's a clear shift in representation from the old Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, and broadly speaking that helps Republicans," said McDonald. "But I just caution that we have to get the real population data within these states and really look under the hood before we can know much more."

Both McDonald and Kimball Brace of Election Data Services predict the impact will be felt hardest in Texas, where growth in the Hispanic population is expected to account for the additional seats in the GOP-leaning state.

"We really can't start talking about what these districts could look like until the real detailed data comes out," Brace said. "Republicans will have an opportunity in Texas, but depending on how much of that population growth comes from the Hispanic population, that makes a big difference." 

The full data will come out between February and March, with the Census Bureau prioritizing the release of the information for New Jersey and Virginia, both of which face a shorter window to redistrict thanks to state legislative elections looming in 2011.


—This story was updated at 12:06 p.m. and 1:03 p.m.