Redistricting is a hidden weapon for gloomy GOP

As Republicans brace for a 2010 election cycle that begins their long road back to the majority, they do have one major weapon in their arsenal — redistricting.

In 2000, Republicans used redistricting to solidify their majorities. Now, with the party reeling from two straight election losses, the landscape for the 2010 round of redistricting could provide them opportunities to regain some of those seats and add some new ones.

The 2010 census could add multiple House seats to red-leaning states — as many as four districts to Texas and two each to Arizona and Florida. And it could subtract seats from blue-trending states like Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Most of the states slated to gain seats in reapportionment next cycle feature Republican-controlled state legislatures and governor’s mansions — the powerhouses that decide how to allocate congressional districts.

States expecting to lose seats are more of a mixed bag, with most facing split control in those branches of government, which generally results in compromise.

Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, said there will be a premium on total control of the redistricting process this time, since after the last round the Supreme Court showed reluctance to rein in extreme cases of gerrymandering.

“People will believe that all bets are off, all gloves can come off, and as long as you do something for political reasons … it’s going to be OK,” Hebert said. “When it comes to political gerrymandering, the sky’s the limit.”

Because most of the states’ gubernatorial races will be held in 2010, it’s too early to declare with any certainty which party will hold the edge in most states. But the current setup and historical trends appear to favor the GOP, particularly when it comes to the state legislatures.

In fact, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the party in control of the White House has lost seats in 17 of the last 18 midterm elections, with 2002 being the only exception.

“The silver lining for Republicans is that they’re almost certain to bounce back in 2010, and it’s the all-important redistricting election,” said Tim Storey, a redistricting expert at NCSL.

But state legislatures are only two-thirds of the calculus, and unlike 2000 — a presidential year — 2010 will put the governor’s mansions up for grabs in almost every key redistricting state.

Democratic lawyer Sam Hirsch noted that, whatever the GOP advantages, the situation for Democrats is far better than it was in 2000, when four big swing states — Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — all featured unilateral GOP control of redistricting.

Republicans used that round of redistricting to build a combined 2-to-1 majority in those states’ U.S. House delegations.

“It’s hard to know, because there are so many state elections in 2010 that will matter,” Hirsch said, noting the many governors’ races. But, he added, “at this point, it doesn’t seem that likely that you would see an odd phenomenon like that again.”

Eleven states expected to gain or lose U.S. House seats — Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas — feature single-party control of the state legislature, but will also hold gubernatorial elections in two years.

Party leaders looking to forestall redistricting losses could focus on winning the top executive posts in those states.

That is particularly the case in Florida, where a Democratic Party facing large deficits in the state legislature will likely need to unseat Gov. Charlie Crist (R) in order to have a seat at the table. Florida is slated to gain one or two seats after 2010, according to an Election Data Services projection released last month.

Aside from the governors’ races, the most intense battles for control of 2010 redistricting are expected to take place in chambers like the Texas House and the New York Senate, where slim majorities are the only thing separating single-party control from split control of the redistricting process.

The battle for the Texas House features the biggest prize, with estimates putting the state’s gain in House members at a minimum of three, and probably four.

Republicans currently control both chambers in the state legislature, as well as the governor’s mansion. With either Gov. Rick Perry (R) or his potential primary opponent, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, favored to win, the real battle is expected to be in the state House, where Republicans hold a narrow 76-74 edge.

In New York, which is expected to lose at least one U.S. House seat, the state Senate flipped for Democrats for the first time in decades last year, 32-29. Though Republicans could go after the governorship, retaking upstate Senate seats looks to be their best chance of preventing total Democratic control of the redistricting process.

The situation is more nuanced in swing state Pennsylvania, where Republicans hold a rather solid state Senate majority, but Democrats hold both the governor’s mansion and a slight 104-99 majority in the state House. With Gov. Ed Rendell (D) term-limited in 2010, the GOP appears to have the opening. The state is expected to lose one seat.

The situation closely mirrors that of neighboring Ohio, which is supposed to lose two seats. There, Democrats hold a 53-46 edge in the state House and have an incumbent governor up for reelection in Ted Strickland.

But even when a party controls the redistricting process, it’s not a slam-dunk.

David Wasserman, a House race analyst with The Cook Political Report, noted that in New York, where Republicans hold just three of 29 House seats, eliminating any of them will be difficult for Democrats, even if they have total control.

“This is a situation where it doesn’t really matter which party is in control,” Wasserman said. “New York City is such a bottleneck that [Democrats] really have to sacrifice one.”

Wasserman also noted that in Texas, a growing Hispanic population would likely force Republicans to create a Democratic-leaning district in the southern part of the state.

In Nevada, which is expected to gain a seat, carving one more into the current three-district map is almost certain to lead to a good opportunity for Republicans, Wasserman said, despite current Democratic control of the state legislature and an unpopular GOP governor up for reelection.

The balance of power isn’t as telling in the few states that have redistricting commissions, including Arizona (likely plus-two) and New Jersey (minus-one).

Other factors influencing the outlook include a pair of Supreme Court cases dealing with the Voting Rights Act. One of them, Bartlett v. Strickland, could decide whether “minority-controlled” districts under the act must feature a majority of minority voters.

Hanging over those cases is the fact that the Department of Justice must answer to a Democratic president during redistricting for the first time since the Voting Rights Act was instituted in 1965.

Chart: Partisan breakdown of state governments (.PDF)