The Stealth Races

Beneath the national media’s radar, a fierce struggle is underway for control of dozens of state legislatures. The results may determine which party controls the US House of Representatives for the next 10 years.

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While most media attention remains riveted on the roller-coaster ride of the presidential race, a quiet but critically important war is being waged for control of the 50 state legislatures.

In nearly a third of the states, the major parties are within a bare half-dozen seats of one another in one chamber. Control of those houses has national implications, thanks to a little-recognized fact of American politics: if a party controls both houses of the state legislature as well as the Governor’s seat at the end of each decade, it wins the power to redraw its state’s legislative district lines, both for the state legislature and for the US House of Representatives. That, in turn, can determine which party controls the US House.

By using techniques like “packing” — whereby the lines are drawn so that large numbers of your political opponents’ voters are packed into a few districts — those controlling the process can dramatically heighten their chances at winning the remaining districts.

In California, for example, Democrats regained the Governor’s mansion in 1998, matching their control of the state house and senate, and thereby gaining power over California’s redistricting for the first time in 20 years. Democrats gave abrupt notice that certain Republican Congresspeople could start looking for new jobs. “If James Rogan is still in office after 2002, he will be representing a district in the Pacific Ocean,” crowed one Democratic consultant.

Analysts in both parties say control over the 2001 redistricting process will give a party such an advantage that the state elections in 1998 and 2000 will determine who holds a majority in the US House through 2010. A handful of voters in 2000 may be determining representation for voters well into the next decade.

“In so many ways, redistricting will determine the future control of Congress,” says Kevin Mack, who heads the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Some observers say the 1994 elections — when Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in over 40 years — was due in part to the last redistricting in 1991.

Democrats control both houses in 19 state legislatures, Republicans in 17, and 13 are split (Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is nonpartisan but leans conservative). In some 15 states, the majorities in at least one house are narrow enough that both parties have a chance at taking a majority on Election Day. Among them are big states such as Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Given the narrow margin of the GOP’s House majority now — 222 to 211 with two independents — even a small shift could have big implications for national politics. Yet without the personality contest of the presidential contest to attract media attention, it’s treated like political junkie trivia rather than prime time news.

Part of the problem is most voters aren’t in on the game, as the battle boils down to only a handful of close races in each state. That’s because most legislative districts were drawn in the last redistricting to be non-competitive. This small number of close races is being fought over furiously. Huge gobs of soft money have been raised and spent in nasty sound bite campaigns, as Democrats and Republicans try to sway undecided voters in these swing races.

The close breakdown at the state level — like the tight battles for Congress and the presidency — reflects the nation’s political balance. Essentially we have two minority parties right now. Neither party has a majority of the national electorate on their side. So the tightrope balance and the stakes drive up the cost, and the acrimony, of these elections.

Public attention may be riveted by the presidential face-off, but the conflict for control of state capitals and redistricting may have longer-term partisan implications. And the real losers in all this usually are the ordinary voters, who typically end up bunkered down in a safe, one-party district where voting amounts to ratifying the candidate chosen to dominate their district.

So stay tuned to those legislative races and then, keep an eye on those legislators next year. That’s when redistricting — and the often bitter battle for future power — starts in all 50 states.

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