Population Shifts Favor GOP

Talk about shifting power from Washington to the states. It's happening this year, just as it does every 10 years, in redistricting—a process in which the states have all the power and members of Congress turn into lobbyists.

With the House now almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, drawing new congressional district boundary lines could determine who wields power in Washington after the 2002 midterm election. Which party stands to benefit from redistricting? That depends on population shifts and which party has more power in the states.

Population shifts appear to favor the Republicans. Look at the states that are gaining House seats. Seven Southern and Western states that voted for George W. Bush will have more Representatives in Congress. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas will each get two more. Colorado, Nevada, and North Carolina will get one more. Total: 11 more House members from Bush states.

Only one state that Al Gore carried last year will gain power in the House. California picks up exactly one seat.

Where will those 12 new seats come from? Four Bush states—Indiana, Mississippi, Ohio, and Oklahoma—will each lose one House seat. Six Gore states will lose a total of eight seats. New York and Pennsylvania will both lose two, while Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin will each lose one.

The 2000 census shows the population continuing to shift from the Frost Belt, which is predominantly Democratic territory, to the Sun Belt, where Republicans do well. Within states, the shift is from the Democratic cities to the more-Republican suburbs. What about all those new immigrants? They count. Even illegal immigrants get representation in Congress.

But most new immigrants don't yet vote. A lot of the huge wave of Hispanic immigration, both legal and illegal, over the past decade has gone into Sun Belt cities, such as Houston and Phoenix. The new immigrants increase the political clout of those cities without changing their politics very much, at least in the short run.

Of course, the population shift to the Sun Belt and the suburbs has been going on for 50 years. It used to be the case that at redistricting time, Democrats had more power in the states. So their party drew lines to minimize the impact of the population shifts and to keep the House under Democratic control. After the 1980 census, California Democratic Congressman Phil Burton drew such tortuous district lines that some of them connected only at low tide. "My contribution to modern art," he called it.

Since 1994, Republicans have wielded more power than Democrats in the states. Republican governors now outnumber Democratic governors 29 to 19. There are two independents, Angus S. King Jr. of Maine and Jesse Ventura of Minnesota. Before 1994, the last time Republicans controlled a majority of the nation's governorships was 1970. But Republican control did not last long in the 1970s. In 1971, just in time for redistricting, the Democrats reclaimed dominance of the nation's statehouses.

Republicans now control 18 state legislatures to the Democrats' 16, with 15 divided legislatures and one nonpartisan (Nebraska). Before 1994, you have to go back 40 years to find a time when Republicans dominated the nation's legislatures.

In eight states, redistricting will be totally controlled by Republicans. That's especially important in Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio, which will either be gaining or losing seats. Republicans will also control the process in Kansas, Nebraska, Utah, and Virginia, where the number of seats won't change. Total number of House seats in GOP-controlled states: 98.

In seven states, Democrats will have full control of redistricting. Four of them—Georgia, California, North Carolina, and Mississippi—are gaining or losing seats. The other three Democratic-controlled states—Alabama, Maryland, and West Virginia—will keep the same number of districts. Total number of House seats in Democratic-controlled states: 101.

In the rest of the country, the parties will share control of redistricting (23 states), or the process will be handled by less-overtly partisan commissions (Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, New Jersey, and Washington), or the state has only one congressional district (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming).

What's the bottom line? For the first time in decades, Republicans have as much control as Democrats over redistricting. The Democratic Party is only six seats short of a majority in the House, but redistricting reduces the odds of a Democratic takeover. Chances of the Democrats' seizing the Senate next year look higher. The Senate is split 50-50, and Republicans will have 20 Senate seats up next year, compared with the Democrats' 13.

To be sure, House members will not be sitting idly by while their fates are determined by redrawn district lines. Many members of Congress are sharing campaign money with state legislators. A few House members have hired lobbyists to plead their case to state lawmakers. One New York Congressman whose district is threatened with extinction has organized a "Save Our District" petition drive. And several House members from threatened districts are threatening back. "You eliminate my district," they say to their governors, "and I'll run for governor next year. That'll show you."