By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 8:56 AM
For Democrats facing the likely prospect of losing control of the House of Representatives for the next two years, there is an even scarier thought: losing it for the next decade.
Republican wins in Tuesday's midterm elections are expected to sweep far down the ballot to state legislatures across the country, giving the GOP a pronounced political advantage as the parties tackle redistricting next year. It's the legislatures that are tasked with the once-a-decade, complicated and partisan process of redrawing congressional boundaries based on population shifts gleaned from the census.
In most states, the party that controls the political process controls the map. Republican operatives are predicting that the GOP will pick up as many as 500 additional seats, and wrestle majorities in legislatures away from the Democrats in anywhere from 10 to 18 states.
"We've got a minimum of 11 or 12 chambers going our way - and it could be as high as 17," said Chris Jankowski, director of the Republican State Leadership Committee's REDMAP project.
The goal for legislatures is to carve congressional districts based on voter registration in order to secure partisan victories - in other words, to hand-pick voters. The process often is contentious, resulting in oddly drawn districts to favor candidates - a process known as gerrymandering.
Jankowski is predicting that Republicans are well positioned to gain control of the New York Senate - a major prize since the lower body will remain Democratic and Democrat Andrew Cuomo probably will become governor. Having control of the New York Senate "gives us a seat at the table" when the maps are drawn, Jankowski said. Republicans said they are also competitive in Pennsylvania and Ohio, where Democrats are fighting to hold on to slim majorities.
Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, acknowledged that his side could face some harsh setbacks. "It could be a couple or it could be more," he said. "I see a number of races too close to call. Elections are funny. A lot of things can happen."
New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania have been among the most intensely fought battlegrounds at the state level because all three states are expected to lose seats in Congress, putting significant power to determine who gets the remaining seats in the hands of the legislatures. In most states, governors also play a key role because they have veto power over the maps, and indicators point to Republicans picking up a half-dozen or more governorships.
Democrats were at a disadvantage during the 1991 redistricting. That paved the way for the GOP to carve out a number of Republican seats, contributing to the historic 1994 Republican sweep of Congress. Control became an even higher priority for Democrats when Republicans, after winning control of the Texas legislature in 2002 for the first time in 130 years, completed a controversial mid-decade congressional redistricting.
Consequently, Democrats led by the DLCC have spent the past decade strategically working to recapture legislatures.
And it has paid off: Democrats have gone from controlling 43 chambers in 2002 to 60 today. 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.
But with Democrats falling out of favor nationally, Republicans saw an opportunity to improve their prospects for winning back Congress and controlling it for years to come - by shaking loose the Democrats' grip on statehouses. They have spent millions of dollars on these small races, and high-profile strategists have been emphasizing their importance.
American Crossroads, the conservative campaign organization founded by Karl Rove, has pumped money into states. Former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie agreed this year to chair the RSLC and raise about $30 million for the races. Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said he started making the case to donors two years ago that this year's governors contests were particularly important because of redistricting. The Democratic Governors Association brought in Harold Ickes, former deputy chief of staff in the Clinton administration, to help raise money.