Early census snapshot: a boost for Republicans

Sorry, New York. Sorry, Pennsylvania. Sorry, Connecticut.

Preliminary estimates of the 2000 census indicate you are going to be among the losers in the once-a-decade reapportionment of seats in Congress. Your political clout is going to be siphoned off by your burgeoning neighbors in the South and West, by sunshine mega-states like Florida, Texas, and California.

But the rearrangement of the congressional deck chairs has significance far beyond the impact on individual states. According to political analysts, how the new state-population totals refigure the seat distribution will likely determine which party controls the US House of Representatives through five election cycles.

And that party could very well be the Republicans. "Clearly, they're in a better position than they were in the 1990s because of significant gains in the South," says Tim Storey, an expert on congressional redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Politically speaking, the census data are expected to result in a "take from the North, give to the South" trend that goes back decades. Pennsylvania, for instance, has lost seats after every census since 1950. New York had 45 House seats 50 years ago, but after its congressional districts are redrawn to comply with its expected new allotment, it may have only 29. Speaking broadly, estimates indicate eight states in the North and Midwest will lose about 10 seats that will be picked up by eight Southern and Western states.

Conventional wisdom, and certainly the expectation of the GOP, is that the change will benefit Republicans, because they are now politically dominant in the South. But there are several caveats to this scenario, including two-ton California, which is now completely controlled by Democrats.

Who controls state government is key, because it is the state legislatures that will redraw the congressional districts once the Census Bureau announces the new allotment at the end of this year. The actual process of redistricting begins in April - after the new state legislatures are elected this November. The new districts won't pack their first punch until the 2002 elections.

But party operatives on both sides are already preparing for the redistricting battle. The Republican National Committee, for instance, is launching a multimillion-dollar effort to win control of several state legislatures this November.

Redistricting "is very much a partisan act," says Marshall Wittmann, congressional analyst at the Heritage Foundation here. Sophisticated computer programs have replaced the smoke-filled back rooms of yesteryear, and they are even more adept at custom-making districts that favor the party in control.

This could result in more politically homogenous districts, a welcome development by the parties. But it will also likely feed partisanship in the House, because representatives will not have to show flexibility to please a diverse constituency at home, Mr. Wittmann explains.

Although observers like Wittmann are convinced Republicans will come out on top at the end of this, others are more skeptical.

"Redistricting is incredibly important for individual members, but I seriously doubt it will affect the overall makeup of the House," says Charles Cook, an independent political analyst based in Washington.

Indeed, the stakes will be high for individual members, because in states that lose a seat or two, incumbents will have to battle one another for what's left. And in the Sun Belt states, candidates will face thousands of newcomers who have never heard of them.

And several factors may act as a brake on the rush to the Republican conclusion, Mr. Cook points out.

One is the courts, which are watching the redistricting process much more closely than in the past. Another is technology. While Republicans and Democrats are using sophisticated computer models to build their districts, that same software is available to anyone - consumer groups, the media, members of Congress - for about $3,000.

"With modern technology, the idea of someone going into a back room and pulling a fast one and the media not being aware - you just can't do it," Cook says.

More important, Republicans do not control all of the legislatures and governorships of the states expected to gain seats, so they cannot guarantee they'll control the redistricting process.

Of the eight states expected to pick up seats, three (Arizona, Colorado, and Florida) are completely in the hands of Republicans. But this year's elections could result in only one of those states - Florida - remaining a Republican stronghold.

Another huge factor will be the voters themselves. Sun-seekers flocking to the South from the North are not necessarily hard-core conservatives, says Bernard Grofman, an expert on redistricting at the University of California in Irvine.

"The kinds of people moving to, say, Florida, are moderate conservatives. They are not, on balance, Moral Majority, born-again-Christian, hard-core-Republican loyalists," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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