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Lou Cannon: GOP Holds Uncertain Edge in Legislative Redistricting

Voter wave favors Republicans now but tides can turn quickly in tumultuous sea of politics

Despite the heralding of political “revolutions” and realignments, victories in U.S. elections tend to be short-lived.

When Republicans controlled Congress and the White House during the first six years of George W. Bush’s presidency, the architects of this achievement envisioned an enduring GOP majority. Democrats substituted their own triumphalist fantasy after they took back Congress in 2006 and Barack Obama won the presidency two years later behind a surge of new voters and the support of independents who deserted the Republicans.

As Democrats saw it, changing demographics, and especially the rise of Latinos, would send the Republican Party the way of the Whigs. That may still happen, but it didn’t in 2010 as the GOP regained the House of Representatives and added more than 740 state legislative seats across the country in a midterm landslide. Before the election, Republicans controlled both legislative chambers in only 14 states. Afterward, Republicans claimed majorities of the entire legislature in 26 states and of one chamber in another eight states, as well as 29 governorships.

Redistricting of the House and state legislatures is required every 10 years to conform with population changes recorded by the federal census. This year Republicans are striving to extend their 2010 victories and ensure GOP dominance of the federal and state legislative branches for the rest of the decade. Early redistrictings suggest they have a reasonable chance of doing this, but as the baseball savant Yogi Berra said in 1973, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

In the more formal assessment of Tim Storey, an expert on redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Republicans are poised to cash in on their 2010 victories but with maps yet to be drawn in a number of the key states, it’s far from a done deal.”

The early Republican models are Indiana and Texas, where redistrictings have solidified GOP control. The addition of four House seats in Texas, the most of any state, makes it the biggest congressional prize in 2012 and the new redistricting gives Republicans an advantage in all four of them. The newly drawn lines are designed to preserve the Republican super-majority in the Texas House of Representatives and the 19-12 GOP edge in the state Senate. In Indiana the new redistricting arrangement maintains a Republican advantage in the House, where the delegation leans 6-3 in the Republicans’ favor, and cements GOP control of both chambers of the Legislature. Four incumbent Democratic legislators were dumped into a pair of districts, assuring that no more than two of them will survive.

The Democratic Party used comparable tactics in the few states where it still holds both the legislature and the governor’s office. In Illinois, the new redistrictings preserve Democratic control of the Legislature and give Democrats a reasonable chance to win five extra House seats even though Illinois lost a congressional seat in the census. (Currently, Democrats hold an 11-8 margin in the House.) Sounding like Texas Democrats, Republicans in Illinois are crying “gerrymander” and threatening to sue.

A combination of outcomes in the 2010 elections — losses of the legislature or governorships and ballot measures in California and Florida that turned redistricting over to commissions — denied the Democrats control of congressional and legislative map-drawing in several populous states.

New York was a notable missed opportunity. Democrats held the governorship and the Assembly but Republicans narrowly took the state Senate, assuring an even-handed reapportionment in the Empire State.

Meanwhile, Republicans were winning both the governorships and legislatures in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The GOP also won the Legislature in North Carolina, where the law does not allow the governor to veto redistrictings.

Even when reapportionment is not in the hands of the legislature, Republicans have received most of the breaks. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, for example, the commissions drawing the new lines lean Republican.

Redistricting is of interest mostly to the 15,000 or so legislative and congressional candidates who will be helped or harmed by it, and a handful of political elites. Ordinary voters no doubt prefer watching the grass grow to exploring the arcane processes of reapportionment. But redistricting affects many issues that Americans care mightily about.

This year, with Washington gridlocked by divided government, Republicans advanced conservative agendas in the many statehouses they control. Ohio and Wisconsin limited collective bargaining by public employees. Five states required voter identification at the polls, supposedly to reduce fraud, bringing the number of states that do so to 13. Democrats claim the fraud issue is a smokescreen and the real Republican motive is to discourage minorities and the elderly from voting, which a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found is often the result of such laws.

Five states banned abortion in the final 20 weeks of pregnancy. Four states cut off funding to Planned Parenthood and other clinics that provide abortion services, although a federal judge has put Indiana’s law on hold. Several states passed tough immigration bills that emulate Arizona’s SB 1070 and give local law enforcement officers the authority to question the immigration status of persons they detain. These laws, too, are mostly on hold pending U.S. Supreme Court determination of their constitutionality.

However these measures fare in the courts, it is clear that redistricting has enormous political consequences on touchstone political issues — all the more so if divided government persists in Washington after next year’s elections. But there are many barriers that Republicans have to cross before they can declare victory. These include various legal challenges to redistricting, more than a dozen in Texas alone. Texas is one of nine states (plus certain counties or townships in seven other states) where pre-clearance from the Justice Department or a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. is required under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Republicans also face political challenges. The first of these occurs this month in Wisconsin where six recall elections could tip control of the Republican-held state Senate to the Democrats and forestall partisan redistricting in a state where Republicans hold the governorship and the Assembly. The recall contests are a backlash to Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s successful effort earlier this year to push through legislation banning collective bargaining except for police and firefighters.

In November, four states — Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia — will hold legislative elections that could provide clues to the national political mood. In Mississippi, Republicans have a narrow 27-24 edge in the state Senate. The state Senate is also up for grabs in Virginia, where Democrats hold a 22-18 margin.

Then there is the conundrum of California, where a series of voter initiatives is about to shake up an ossified political system. For the past decade, the Golden State has been a poster child for legislative dysfunction, partly because of lopsided legislative districts that protect incumbents of both parties. In California only seven legislative and congressional seats have changed partisan control in 612 races during the last four election cycles. Under the new system, candidates will compete in open primaries in which the top two candidates — regardless of party — advance to the general election. Many of the new districts are far more competitive than the ones they replaced, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

Since Independents (called “decline to state” in California) can participate in these primaries, the new system may improve the election chances of centrists and eventually translate into more bipartisan cooperation in Sacramento. That’s the hope, anyway. Billionaire Charles T. Munger Jr., a Montecito resident and moderate Republican who bankrolled the open-primary and redistricting initiatives, predicts that California’s legislative and congressional delegations will be transformed within two or three election cycles with more Republican centrists in office.

He may turn out to be right, but Democrats could be the immediate beneficiaries in 2012. Democrats swept statewide elections in 2010 and hold a commanding registration edge in California, where the Republican Party has drifted obdurately to the right. It has been widely estimated that Democrats could pick up three or four House seats in 2012 and perhaps achieve a long-sought and elusive goal of a two-thirds majority in the Legislature. Republicans this year used the two-thirds rule, as they have in the past, to successfully resist the efforts of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to extend temporary tax increases to help solve the state’s budget crisis.

On balance, while Republicans have an edge in redistricting across the nation, there are too many uncertainties to predict the outcome. It’s also worth noting that even the cleverest redistrictings do not assure victory. Voter disillusion with the economy and the Iraq War during the George W. Bush presidency produced “wave elections” in 2006 and 2008 in which scores of supposedly safe Republicans were defeated. Voter disillusion with Obama’s health-care and stimulus bills triggered an even stronger Republican wave in 2010.

Richard Harwood, my late, great editor at the Washington Post, used to remind his reporters that 24 hours is a long time in the life of a politician. There are more than 500 days to the 2012 election.

— Summerland resident Lou Cannon is a longtime national political writer and acclaimed presidential biographer. His most recent book — co-authored with his son, Carl — is Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. Cannon also is an editorial adviser to State Net Capitol Journal, which published this column originally.

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