Democrats, GOP plan for shift in states' political power. Lawmakers grapple over partisan advantage

While the presidential campaign was the top priority this fall, many party strategists cast a wary glance at the calendar. In 1991, the United States will use the new US census to reposition states' political power. Those that have gained population - such as California and Texas - will get more seats in the US House of Representatives. Others - such as New York and Pennsylvania - will lose seats.

That's when the fun begins. And Republicans and Democrats are already trying to affect the outcome. This year they battled to a near standstill to control state legislatures - the key players in the redistricting game. The parties are expected to fight even harder in 1990.

Every 10 years, the legislatures sit down to draw the new boundaries of their congressional districts. It's called redistricting or, in its more notorious form, ``gerrymandering,'' in honor of Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who redrew the state's voting districts to his own advantage nearly 180 years ago. One district was so oddly shaped that it reminded a politician of a salamander and the plan was soon dubbed a ``Gerry-mander.'' The nickname has stuck.

Laws over the years have stifled most of this legislative creativity. But partisan legislatures still try to turn, say, a 5-to-5 balance into a 6-to-4 advantage for their party. That is why the parties are fighting so hard to elect their own majorities to the legislatures.

This year, though, the Democrats blunted Republican hopes. After making gains nationwide of 302 and 330 seats in the last two presidential elections, the GOP actually suffered a net loss of about 14 seats on Nov. 8, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

In states where redistricting is likely to be an issue, Democrats achieved a tie in the GOP-controlled Indiana House and took control of the previously evenly divided New Mexico Senate. Depending on the recounts of two races in Washington State, the Democrats may also capture the state Senate there, with a razor-thin majority.

The turnover in legislatures this year represents the smallest number of changes since at least 1960, says William Pound, executive director of the NCSL. It may well be the lowest in history, he adds. ``Many districts today are noncompetitive, quite frankly.''

But Democratic strategists have little to croon about. While they control most of the legislatures, they face a disturbing long-term trend.

``We are not going to change a thing in terms of strategy because we feel extremely good about this year,'' says Tim Dickson, executive director of Project 500, the Democrats' national strategy for the legislatures. But ``we have to respond to the changing demographics.''

Here's what the Democrats face: This year they made gains in state chambers of 23 states, but only two of these were states likely to gain congressional seats after the 1990 census.

Many of the party's gains were in Northern states that are likely to lose congressional seats. Montana, where Democrats have just wrested control of the GOP-held House, is in danger of losing one of its two seats. If it does, Montana would be the seventh state with only one congressional district statewide.

Republicans, meanwhile, gained seats in legislatures of only 20 states, but four of them - Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas - are growth states expected to gain anywhere from one to four congressional seats after the 1990 Census.

Moreover, the states with the largest expected gains - California (+5), Texas (+4), and Florida (+3) - all have Republican governors and enough Republican legislators to sustain vetoes. If the governors stay in office and disapprove of a Democratic redistricting plan, they will have the votes to sustain a veto and force a compromise.

Those three Sunbelt states alone are likely to constitute just under one-fourth of the entire US Congress after reapportionment. The changes may help narrow the House majority that the Democrats have enjoyed since 1954.

Because the gains and losses are based on population projections, the actual numbers may turn out a bit differently when the 1990 census comes out, says Kim Brace, president of Election Data Services Inc., a Washington, D.C., consulting firm.

The firm used census projections in April to determine how many congressional seats states might gain or lose. But more recent data, he says, suggest that California could gain six seats instead of five, while Texas would gain only three and Pennsylvania would lose two instead of three seats.

Gerrymandering doesn't always work. During the last round of redistricting, in the early 1980s, plans in at least a dozen states were challenged in court or got Justice Department review. And in Indiana last time, Republicans were firmly in control of the machinery but botched up their plan.

Instead of the 6-to-4 GOP majority they envisioned, Democrats surprised everyone and eventually grabbed six seats for themselves.

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