Laurent Soucie has been a beekeeper, firefighter, schoolteacher,
assistant shepherd, factory worker, and - for two years -
professional wrestler. Now he wants to add one more line to his
rsum: state assemblyman.
If he is elected to represent a 50,000-person district north of
Madison, Wis., Mr. Soucie could help the Democrats gain control of
the Wisconsin Assembly. He probably won't make the cover of Newsweek
or be the subject of a tart Jay Leno monologue, but his race - and
hundreds of low-profile state contests like it - could help
determine the future balance of power in the United States.
While public attention is riveted on the expected face-off
between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the unsung battle for control of
the nation's statehouses may prove to be just as pivotal - thanks to
once-a-decade congressional redistricting and a long-term shift of
power toward the states.
"The balance of power is incredibly even between the two parties
at this moment," says Republican National Committee strategist
"The party that does the best down the ballot in this cycle is
going to do the best in the next 10 years," he says.
The numbers reflect that balance. Democrats control 19
legislatures, Republicans 18, and another 12 are split. In perhaps
15 states, the majorities are narrow enough that both parties have a
chance at taking a majority in November elections. Among them are
big states such as Texas, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and, of course,
"The legislature could change hands in any state where the margin
is close now," says William Pound of the National Conference of
State Legislatures. "And because our politics are very balanced
today, that's a lot of them."
So what gives the Laurent Soucies of the world so much control
over the future of national politics?
The redistricting rule
A big factor is that state legislatures, armed with new Census
numbers, are about to redraw the lines that define congressional
districts. Control over the redistricting process gives a party such
an advantage that these state elections will probably determine who
holds a majority in the House of Representatives for the next
decade, say analysts in both parties.
Each district must have about the same number of people in it.
But by drawing the lines so that one's political opponents are
concentrated in a few districts, those controlling the process can
dramatically help their chances at winning more seats.
According to estimates by the Republican National Committee,
which are similar to Democratic estimates, a shift of as few as 17
state legislative seats and two governorships could give the GOP an
advantage of 20 more seats in the US House.
Conversely, Democrats could see a 20-seat gain in the House by
picking up 35 state legislative seats and a governorship. Given the
wire-thin margin of the GOP's House majority now - five seats - even
a smaller shift could have big implications for national politics.
"In so many ways, redistricting will determine the future control
of Congress," says Kevin Mack, who heads the Democratic Legislative
Campaign Committee. …