Redistricting changes little

Posted: Wednesday, December 05, 2001

Less than a year before elections put control of Congress to voters, the behind-the-scenes struggle to gain an advantage through redistricting has so far kept both Republicans and Democrats from making decisive gains.

Republican strategists maintain they'll come out ahead after GOP-controlled legislatures in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida finish their work. Democrats see more to back their prediction that the balance will remain unchanged, a view many political scientists echo.

''This is a game in which people are grinding out one yard at a time by brute force. There are no long-run touchdowns here,'' said Bernard Grofman, a political science professor at University of California at Irvine. ''The potential for really changing the map just isn't very large.''

Redistricting is the redrawing of political lines to account for population changes, required after the new census. Maps from Congress down to city councils must be redrawn so electoral districts, at each level in government, are equal in population.

Republicans came into the process hoping they would wind up with a good chance to expand their 10-seat majority in the House of Representatives by creating a bunch of new, GOP-majority districts.

But GOP hopes were damaged -- though not destroyed -- by a court-ordered Texas map last month that only creates two new likely Republican districts. Some state leaders had predicted an eight-seat gain.

In California, Democrats cut a deal that drew the state's lone new seat to their side, adding one to their current 32-20 hold over the state's delegation. Some Democrats had hoped for a three-seat gain.

Overall, the nationwide map is still incomplete and facing several legal challenges. But the signs point to a political landscape without radical changes. Hispanics are making gains, though fewer than some hoped, while blacks are just holding their own.

The new maps themselves don't decide who wins and loses -- voters do that on Election Day -- but they can draw a district with so many members of one party as to make it a sure thing.

As 2002 approaches, 20 states have finished congressional redistricting, slightly less than half that must. (Seven states have only one congressional district).

So far, in maps approved or near approval:

Republicans appear likely to see a five-seat swing in Michigan, two seats in Texas and a possible Utah seat. They are likely to lose a seat in Indiana. In all, that would be a seven-seat gain.

Democrats may pick up new single seats in Arizona, California and North Carolina, and lose a seat in Illinois and maybe Utah. In Georgia, new maps would give Democrats a six-seat swing, though those maps face federal scrutiny. That would also mean a seven-seat gain.

Competitive seats are getting attention in Arizona and Nevada, with neither party clearly ahead there. At least a half-dozen state maps are headed to court.

In the remaining states, the GOP is hoping to break ahead by gaining as many as eight seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.

With his possible political future waiting in yet-to-be-drawn maps, Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, said he's already considering a gubernatorial run or a challenge to a neighboring GOP congressman.

''If they are so outrageous that they, for all practical purposes, destroy my district as it currently exists, I have options,'' he said. In other states, lawmakers have picked up and moved to different districts.

Republicans hope to expand their current 220-210 majority in the U.S. House. (There are two independents). Democrats hope to take control.

''The math does not add up for Democrats,'' said Steve Schmidt, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. ''There's a loss of congressional seats in Democratic territory in the Northeast that's moving to Republican territory in the South and Southwest.''

Democratic Rep. Martin Frost of Texas said: ''This is going to be a break-even nationally, and then the election will be determined on the merits. Whichever party presents the best case will win the election.''

New maps in many states effectively protect incumbents, offering fewer opportunities for minorities and reducing the number of truly competitive districts, said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, Springfield.

He said there will be fewer than 40 competitive districts come the midterm elections, an estimate Schmidt agreed with. That, McDonald said, will leave a polarized Congress even more prone to gridlock.

Most representatives are ''going to be conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats,'' he said. ''There won't be much chance for compromise, I'd say, out of the House of Representatives.''


On the Net:

Informal redistricting scorecard by University of Illinois political science Professor Michael McDonald:

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