Legislatures must be high GOP priority

The Hill reported recently that “National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman John Ensign (R-Nev.) is pressing Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) to break tradition and steer Republican National Committee (RNC) funds to Senate races for the 2008 cycle.” If this potential liaison were a wedding and the minister or priest asked, “If anyone knows of a reason why this couple should not wed, speak now or forever hold your peace,” I’d be jumping up and down, waving my arm wildly while asking for the floor. The RNC has more important spending priorities (or at least it should have) than bailing out the NRSC. State legislative seats should be the RNC’s top priority.

Everyone knows the presidential race will have the most glitz and glamour throughout the 2008 campaign season. And the mainstream media’s tendency to focus on control of the U.S. Senate and House will grab almost every headline and sound bite not claimed by the presidential contenders. But it is plainly evident to me that unsung state legislative contests are demonstrably more important. At the very least, state House and Senate races should get a disproportionate share of party funding.

Why is 2008 such an important year for Republicans in state legislative races? Last November, the Republican Party’s status descended from parity to minority in the state capitols. Before the 2006 round of voting, Republicans controlled 20 state legislatures and Democrats 19. But Democrats picked up 320-plus new seats, garnering new majorities in 10 state chambers. Today, only 15 states are safely in GOP control while 23 are in the clutches of the Democrats. The rest are up for grabs or non-partisan.

This is the lowest point for state legislative Republicans since 1994. And given that the next two rounds of elections will determine control of the legislatures as we go into a season of redistricting following the 2010 census, it is imperative that Republicans get back into the state legislative game. I think a fair-minded analysis of legislative and even  congressional gains made since 1994 will conclude that our successes can often be traced to Republican-led redistricting efforts. But all that can be lost when the boundaries of “safe” districts are redrawn by Democrats.

Ask former Rep. Henry Bonilla of Texas if districting makes a difference. His 23rd congressional district was tweaked in the now-famous Texas redistricting of 2003. Bonilla shed some Democrat-leaning areas for GOP-friendly suburbs and ranchettes. Bonilla flourished in his custom-made confines. But then the federal courts stepped in after part of Tom Delay’s redistricting plan was deemed unconstitutional. The court made relatively modest changes in Bonilla’s map — principally adding Hispanics and dropping Anglos — yet he proceeded to lose in 2006. There will be many more Henry Bonillas if GOP decision-makers don’t focus on state legislative priorities.

Now, some will argue that redistricting in an increasing number of states is less partisan than it once was. Alleged non-partisan commissions have been established in some states to redraw lines in a supposedly fair manner, ostensibly taking state legislators out of the boundary-drawing equation. But only the most naïve observers would believe that these non-partisan agencies are not influenced by incumbency and partisan trends. If Democrats are perceived to be on the rise, they will get every close call, just like the home team in a basketball game.

Some Republicans’ inside-the-Beltway focus on the presidency and Congress is a short-term answer to a long-term problem. We’re behaving like a baseball team that trades all its minor league prospects of the future just to acquire one or two aging free-agent big-league stars because “we have to win now.” We’d be better off building our farm system to groom stars of the future while protecting our current roster in Congress.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.