Democrats Took Redistricting Prize on Nov. 6
State results show party will have upper hand in redrawing of US House district lines
WASHINGTON — HARDLY has the shouting from this year's election died down than results from state contests have made Democrats the clear favorites to retain control of the US House of Representatives throughout the decade. The effect is to present America with the prospect of yet another decade of divided government, with continued frequent stalemates, if Republican presidential candidates are elected in the 1992 and 1996.
Despite Republican gains in numerous states on Nov. 6, the results of state legislative and gubernatorial races have left Democrats in a position to strengthen themselves in many capitols.
States that will gain or lose seats in the US House of Representatives as the result of census-counted population shifts across the United States are required by law to draw up redistricting plans next year for seats in the US House and the state legislatures.
``It appears that the Democrats set themselves up quite nicely,'' says Brian Weberg, program manager of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
``Nationally, the Republicans suffered two critical setbacks, in Florida and Texas'' by losing both governorships in this week's elections, says Alan Heslop, professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
In both states Democrats now control all three levers of redistricting power - both houses of the legislature and the governorship. This is particularly important because the population of both states is growing, and both will gain seats in 1992 - four for Florida, three for Texas. Only one state will gain more - California, with seven.
``More generally, in the redistricting states the Republicans were bested by the Democrats in the election results,'' says Dr. Heslop, an authority on redistricting.
According to early figures collected from 30 states by the National Conference of State Legislatures, Democrats wrested control from Republicans of at least three state legislative houses, (Arizona Senate, Indiana, and Kansas Houses) while Republicans gained a majority in one formerly Democratic chamber (the Oregon House.)
However, in the biggest prize of all, California, Republicans captured one of the three levers, the governorship. ``California is the big enchilada,'' says James Nathanson, deputy political director of the Republican National Committee.
``Not only does California have the most seats, [52 in the House] it had the worst gerrymandering'' (manipulation of district lines) 10 years ago, when Democrats controlled all three power sources, Nathanson says.
In the context of an off-year election, he adds, when the party not in control of the White House is expected to score gains, ``I think we achieved pretty good success'' in terms of strengthening the Republican hand for redistricting.
For one thing, Nathanson says, ``we are at the table in four more states,'' with a combined 66 seats, than in 1980 just before the '81 redistricting: California, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Missouri.
Republicans admitted the election that they were on the defensive in many states. What made the task so daunting was that in several states they held legislative chambers by very narrow margins, and a shift of two or three seats could give control to the Democrats.
In several states the defensive battle succeeded: Republicans retained control of the state senates in New York, which is losing three seats, and Pennsylvania, losing two. Republicans also retained the Indiana Senate, Michigan Senate, and Arizona House, retaining at least one lever of power in each state.
In addition, Republicans seized control of the Oregon House, plus the Massachusetts governorship, giving the party a share of the redistricting action in both states. They also won the Michigan and Minnesota governorships.
The most interesting redistricting fight may occur in California, with its two Democrat-controlled legislative chambers and its new Republican governor, US Sen. Pete Wilson.
Impact of term limits
The California redistricting contest will be particularly hard fought, not only because the state has nearly one in every eight members of the House, but also because of the complicating factor of Proposition 140, approved during this week's election.
It places strict limits on the length of time that California state legislators can serve - eight years for senator, six for assembly member. ``Term limitations could very well have a salubrious effect on the redistricting swamp'' in the state legislature, Heslop says, by lessening the appeal of creating seats that are safe in virtual perpetuity.