Fall's Other Big Prize: Statehouses ; Much Is Riding on the Fight to Control State Legislatures - Including the Right to Redraw Maps for Seats in Congress

By Neil Irwin, | The Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 2000 | Go to article overview

Fall's Other Big Prize: Statehouses ; Much Is Riding on the Fight to Control State Legislatures - Including the Right to Redraw Maps for Seats in Congress


Neil Irwin,, The Christian Science Monitor


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 Tom Cole.

"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, Soucie's Wisconsin.

"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. …

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