FROM New York to California, from Indiana to Florida, state election contests this year are sculpting the political shape of the United States House of Representatives and state legislatures for the 1990s. These contests for the state legislatures and governorships are ``the crucial determinant'' of the direction of politics for the 1992-2002 decade in both the US House and state legislatures, says Alan Heslop, a professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Federal law requires that seats in the US House be reapportioned every decade to reflect the shifts in America's population. Most of the movement has been to the West and South.
The state legislators and governors who are elected Nov. 6 will decide before the 1992 elections exactly how to draw the districts in the US House and state legislatures.
What they decide will go a long way toward determining whether Republicans have a chance to become the majority in the US House during the '90s or be more of an endangered species in that body.
The redistricting also will determine which party controls the machinery of government within each state.
Across the nation, Republicans are more on the defensive than the Democrats are, concedes John Long, director of the legislative task force of the Republican National Committee.
The Democratic Party is on the defensive in two states. But the GOP is striving in three states to prevent Democrats from sweeping the Big 3: the state House of Representatives, Senate, and governorship.
In any state this would give the Democrats nearly free rein to redistrict US House and state legislative seats so as to greatly increase Democratic election prospects in 1992.
``Control of both state houses and the governorship guarantees a clear road to partisan gerrymander,'' says Professor Heslop. Gerrymandering takes its name from a salamander-shaped congressional district that Gov. Elbridge Gerry and the Massachusetts legislature fashioned in 1812.
``In the last two decades gerrymandering has become more extreme than ever before,'' Heslop says.
A US Supreme Court decision of 1964 that requires congressional districts to have similar numbers of voters also permits putting parts of counties into different districts, thus allowing districts to be stretched to ever weirder shapes for political advantage. And computers have made it easier to figure out in advance how to carve up existing districts for partisan benefit.
The impact of this year's state legislative elections is particularly important in states with large US House delegations, and in those that gain or lose the largest number of seats as the result of population shifts.
Republicans insist that they are holding their own in the most important races across the nation. Nevertheless, ``we would expect, and history points out, that this would be a good year for Democrats,'' says Brian Weberg, program manager of the National Conference of State Legislatures. ``In the off years [when there is no presidential election] Democrats usually make gains - especially in the state races.''
Republican strategists are sufficiently concerned about the impact of this year's state races on future US House contests that they are telling congressional incumbents in safe districts that the best way to protect their long-term future is to donate some of their campaign funds to state legislative candidates.
``It may be more important to put money in the [state] legislative races than to use it yourself,'' says Tom Hoffler, who handles redistricting for the National Republican Congressional Committee. ``They're very ambivalent about this idea,'' he says, ``but we say to them: `You could win your race by 75 percent instead of 60 percent, but lose your seat if you lose this legislative body.' ''
California, the most populous state, is one to watch. It has the most members in the US House today - 45. In 1992 it will add another seven members, based on preliminary census figures.
Two years from now, whether California Republicans are able to retain or increase the 18 current seats they hold in the US House may depend more on who wins the governorship this year than on how congressional candidates campaign in 1992.
Democrats there appear to have a safe hold on both houses of the state Legislature. If Republicans win the governorship they will have a veto over any redistricting plan of the Democrat-controlled Legislature; but if they lose, Democrats will have their hands on all three levers of redistricting power.
A similar situation exists in New York state, which in two years will lose three of its current 34 seats in the US House. Democrats are virtually certain to retain control of the governorship and the lower house; Republicans are fighting to retain control of the Senate, where they now have an uneasy 34-27 lead.
If Democrats seize the New York Senate, says a key Republican source, ``almost all'' of the Republican members of the House from New York ``are in danger. We think that maybe half of them might not return'' to the House because they will be redistricted out of their seats.
Other major battlefields:
Indiana: Republicans are trying to protect their two-vote leads in both the state Senate and House.
Pennsylvania: Republicans have a four-vote lead in the state Senate; Democrats have the House edge by five votes. As a result of the 1990 US Census, Pennsylvania loses two House seats in in 1992.
Michigan: Republicans are two votes ahead in the state Senate; Democrats control the state House of Representatives by 12 votes. Michigan loses two US House seats in 1992.
Arizona: Republicans are four votes ahead in the state Senate and have a margin of eight in the House. ``We're protecting both chambers,'' says Mr. Long. Arizona gains one seat in House in 1992.
Florida: Democrats are six votes ahead in the state Senate and 24 ahead in the House. Republicans, on the offensive in this state, are hoping to capture control of the state Senate and the governorship. Florida gains four US House seats in 1992.
Texas: Republicans are scrapping to gain control of the governorship; Democrats control both houses of the state legislature - the Senate by 15 votes and the House by 30. Texas gains three seats in US House in 1992.
Two weeks before the election, many voters still have not focused on state races, and many remain undecided.
``There's still a lot of soft vote out there to go after,'' Long says.