Pennsylvania, other states in tug of war before congressional redistricting

Republicans in Pennsylvania are doing everything they can to get political novice Eli Evankovich elected to the state legislature.
Republicans in Pennsylvania are doing everything they can to get political novice Eli Evankovich elected to the state legislature. (
  Enlarge Photo    
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Eli Evankovich is an accountant and farmer from a tiny town in western Pennsylvania -- and suddenly an important man. Contemplating a run for the state legislature earlier this year, he traveled to Harrisburg for the first time in his life and was startled to find himself enthusiastically courted by Republican leaders.

In any other election cycle, the 27-year-old rookie would barely register with political leaders in the state capital, never mind nationally. But this year, money will be thrown at his campaign against an incumbent Democrat, volunteers will show up at his farm and polls -- a rarity in state legislative races -- will be taken.

As the Beltway remains riveted on November's congressional midterm elections, another political war is taking shape in small communities nationwide, elevating hundreds of unknown Evankoviches to the front lines. The reason: Next year, state legislatures will take up redistricting, the once-a-decade task of redrawing congressional boundaries based on population shifts gleaned through the census.

Redistricting plays a central political role every 10 years, but the stakes seem particularly high this cycle. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, Republicans see an opportunity to improve their prospects for winning back Congress and controlling it for years to come -- by shaking loose the Democrats' grip on state governments.

Some of the biggest names in politics have jumped into the hand-to-hand combat with an intensity generally reserved for a presidential race. Among those at the forefront: Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee; former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.); Democratic strategist Harold Ickes; GOP strategist Karl Rove; and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The national operations are targeting about 100 competitive races in narrowly divided statehouses, in little-known communities such as Chimney Rock, Wis., and Murrysville, Pa., where Evankovich lives. They are recruiting national lawyers and setting up intricate networks to provide cash and expertise. Collectively, partisan special-interest groups, labor unions and state organizations have estimated they will spend upward of $200 million on state legislative and gubernatorial races -- an unprecedented sum.

"Having control of a legislature can translate into U.S. House seats being drawn for Republicans for a decade -- compared to fighting it out district by district for control of the House every two years, which would costs millions," said Gillespie, who is chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which as the main GOP group focused on state races hopes to raise $40 million for this election cycle.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has doubled its fundraising goals to $20 million and spent the past several cycles quietly increasing majorities in legislatures across the country. The party also established the National Democratic Redistricting Trust to handle the inevitable complex legal challenges to redistricted maps, and Foundation for the Future, a largely union-supported entity, to provide strategic and technical support to legislatures.

Ickes, a longtime adviser to Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, is raising money for Democratic governors. The 37 gubernatorial contests this year are crucial, as the chief executive in most states has the power to veto maps the legislatures propose.

"I started to make the case to donors three years ago that the races that impact reapportionment will matter for the next decade. . . . These governors will oversee redistricting," said Nick Ayers, a rising political star as executive director of the Republican Governors Association, which has raised $28 million this year -- a record -- in part because of redistricting.

Big gains

Democrats control both legislative chambers in 27 states, and Republicans control both in 14. Power is split between the two parties in eight states. Nebraska has only one chamber, and its members are technically nonpartisan.

In most states, the party that controls the political process controls the redistricting map. The goal is to create congressional districts based on voter registration data.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company