First Salvos Prepared for Statehouse Redistricting Battles

 

Behind the scenes of this year's legislative elections, both parties are quietly laying the groundwork for the next round of fierce redistricting battles that will decide who controls future statehouses and the U.S. Congress.

Democrats are first off the starting line with plans to create a new political organization, with a war chest of $17 million over the next five years, to give their party an upper hand in redrawing political maps. Legislatures are key to any strategy because in 44 states, legislators are in charge of drawing new congressional districts and can use their numerical power to help their political party. The long-term goal of the new organization is to switch at least a dozen U.S. congressional seats to Democratic control in future elections.

"The Republicans have done a very good job spending time and resources on redistricting for the last 15 years. We are playing catch-up," said Bill Burke, executive director of the newly formed nonprofit "Foundation for the Future" that he said aims to get Democrats a seat at the table when district lines are redrawn. "Our goal is to get fair lines in each of the 50 states."

Democrats are wasting no time taking advantage of a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gives states the green light to redraw political maps whenever they wish, rather than every 10 years when new Census Bureau data are released. The high court upheld the Texas Legislature's controversial 2003 redistricting plan, which later helped five congressional seats in Texas change from Democratic to Republican control in 2004. Today, Republicans hold a 231-201 majority in the U.S. House and have a 55-44 lead in the U.S. Senate.

The new political organization, brainchild of a major labor union and two Democratic groups, will be allowed to raise unlimited money because the group is a "527," known for the section of the U.S. tax code that grants tax-exempt status to political committees at the national, state and local level. These 527s gained new prominence in the 2004 presidential campaign when the 527 group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth> helped derail Democratic Sen. John Kerry's quest for the White House with ads questioning his military record and another called Moveon.org mounted a massive voter-turnout program to try to defeat President Bush.

The Supreme Court redistricting decision, plus razor-thin margins between Republicans and Democrats in statehouses, give greater importance to state elections this year. Currently the GOP has majorities in both legislative chambers in 20 states compared to Democrats' control of 19 statehouses. Ten statehouses are divided between the parties; in the Iowa Senate and the Montana House, Democrats and Republicans are tied. (Nebraska has the nation's only nonpartisan and unicameral legislature.)

A flip of about 50 state legislative seats in key chambers — out of more than 7,382 seats seats nationally — could mean a party change of up to 15 Democratic congressional seats in the next round of redistricting, said Alex Dery Snider, spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC). Colorado, Michigan and Nevada are among the states Democrats are eyeing to pick up congressional seats through redistricting in future years.

Several factors come into play in determining which states are targeted, with political parties paying particular attention to states with close divides in the statehouse and big population changes between the 2000 and 2010 census.

The DLCC is one of three groups spearheading the creation of the new 527. The other two founding members are the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest labor union in the AFL-CIO representing some 500,000 state workers, and the National Committee for an Effective Congress, which was established by Eleanor Roosevelt and others in 1948 to support progressive candidates.

Mike Anton, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee , said his organization has been looking at redistricting for some time and plans to create a separate 527 or another group within the RSLC to specifically tackle it. "527s are in the perfect position to address and take on this issue," he said. But Republicans will wait until after the Nov. 7 election for a final decision on how to proceed, he said.

The Democrats' new 527 came as no surprise to Leah Rush, director of state projects at the Center for Public Integrity , a nonprofit that tracks lobbying and 527s, including at the state level. "It's a well-known tool and people are going to use it."

Burke told Stateline.org the new 527 will "gather as much information as possible to see what is the best approach" to influence the redrawing of district lines. Tactics will differ among states because states vary in how they draw new political maps, he said.

Forty-four states, for example, assign congressional redistricting to legislatures, according to Tim Storey, an elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, although six of those states have only one congressional district (Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming). Six other states turn over the responsibility to commissions (Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington).

A few states, such as Indiana, have "back-up" commissions that take up the task if the legislature fails to enact a plan by a certain deadline, Storey said.  And Iowa conducts redistricting unlike any other state in that a nonpartisan legislative staff develops maps for both the Iowa House and Senate as well as U.S. House districts without any political or election data. The Iowa staff's plans, however, ultimately must be enacted by the Legislature.

Of the state legislatures that have control over congressional redistricting, 20 have at least one chamber within four seats of changing hands, said DLCC spokeswoman Snider.

"Mid-decade redistricting is no longer out of bounds. The rules of the game have changed," according to prepared remarks of top AFSCME official Lee Saunders for a luncheon address during the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., in which the new 527 was unveiled.

"Through careful strategic planning, the foundation will use computer data to analyze existing districts, voting patterns, demographic trends and potential district lines," Saunders said. He said the foundation would develop political strategies to influence the redistricting process, including through elections, nonpartisan commissions, ballot initiatives or litigation.

Saunders is the executive assistant to AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee, who will chair the foundation. AFSCME, one of the most politically active labor unions, plans to spend $22 million on voter education and get-out-the-vote campaigns this election. In August, AFSCME created a $60 million war chest to support "pro-labor" candidates in the 2008 elections who are running for Congress and the White House.

 
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