2010 State Races Will Shape Redraw

by Nathan L. Gonzales May 22, 2009 · 12:05 AM EDT

When Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced last week that he is running for the Senate in 2010 instead of seeking re-election, the move was hailed as Senate Republicans’ biggest recruiting coup of the cycle.

But the news was hardly treated with applause from the Republican Governors Association or any Republican with an eye toward the upcoming post-2010 redistricting battle.

Crist’s departure creates an instantly competitive open-seat race — one of about a dozen next year that could have a serious effect on which party has more influence in the redrawing of House districts.

“Last time, the Republicans controlled more seats at the redistricting table than at any time since 1920,” former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said in a recent interview.

Fast-forward almost a decade and the picture heading into the next redraw looks very different for the GOP.

Both parties are aware of what’s at stake in the 2010 gubernatorial and state legislative races in terms of what the outcomes mean for the next redistricting fight, and both are ramping up their efforts accordingly. But Republicans appear to have the most to win or lose.

The party is down 40 seats in the House and out of power in the White House, and the sizable lead in the number of governorships that the GOP controlled after the 2000 elections has been whittled down to a 22-28 deficit.

On top of that, the upcoming redistricting will be the first since passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which eliminated soft money and will severely limit Members’ involvement in the process.

Traditionally, the Republican National Committee has coordinated the GOP’s redistricting effort, relying heavily on soft money. In contrast, Democrats have relied on outside groups, such as labor unions for fundraising and coordination, making it easier for them to adapt to the new rules.

Davis was one of the key players in the last round of redistricting as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He recalled how important soft money was in the committee’s effort to influence state legislative races in 1999 and 2000, the election cycle before the new lines were drawn.

For instance, Davis said the NRCC poured an estimated $1 million into General Assembly races in Virginia in 1999, the year that the GOP wrested control of the House of Delegates and therefore total control of the redistricting process.

“In 2000, we were very, very focused on the legislative elections, in terms of the state Legislatures,” Davis said. “We were planning well ahead of the game on that.”

But at the moment, Republicans appear to be barely getting out of the conversation stage in terms of their redistricting game plan, in part because of the transition to power of RNC Chairman Michael Steele.

The RNC is moving to take the lead once again, and on Friday, it announced Tennessee National Committeeman John Ryder will serve as chairman of the redistricting committee. The RNC also signed on Tom Hofeller, who is considered to be the party’s authority on redistricting when it comes to data and analysis.

“Every cycle there is a complete educational process within the party,” said Hofeller, who has decades of redistricting experience working at the RNC, the NRCC and as staff director of the House Subcommittee on the Census.

NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) has tapped Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.) to be the Congressional liaison to other Members and to state legislatures. Both men have extensive experience with redistricting in their home states.

“I’ve been given the task to win. So that’s what we’re working on,” Westmoreland said. “We’re just trying to get it all coordinated and make sure that the left hand knows what the right hand’s doing.”

The RNC will likely be a vehicle for number crunching (fusing upcoming, block-level Census data with precinct-level election results, which can be a laborious process) and a valuable resource to state legislative caucuses. But it’s unclear whether the RNC can devote the same resources without soft money.

Unless Republicans are planning on funding the entire redistricting effort, including the electoral, analytical and legal aspects, with hard dollars during a presidential cycle, an outside group or groups will need to be formed.

“Everyone is coming around to the reality that this is a team game,” another GOP consultant said.

While conversations within GOP circles are clearly ongoing, a specific answer to the expected fundraising and coordinated efforts of Democratic groups has not emerged. Party insiders are discussing ways to merge experienced redistricting operatives with individuals who can raise the millions of dollars necessary to fund the effort.

A host of Republican attorneys, including Ben Ginsberg, Mark Braden and Dale Oldham, and other GOP operatives who have experience in redistricting will likely find a home in the GOP strategy, but there isn’t a natural landing place for them yet, nor a clear way to pay them.

According to one GOP source, a high-profile national Republican strategist is on the verge of forming an outside group in an attempt to fill the vacuum on the Republican side. The group could come together in the next couple of weeks and help raise nonfederal dollars for the cause, including the inevitable legal battles.

Fundraising continues to be a very serious concern on the Republican side, particularly after a cycle when the conservative group Freedom’s Watch failed to deliver the financial muscle that many people expected. Members can’t have anything to do with raising nonfederal money, so Republicans may have to rely on former elected officials, governors or special interest groups to raise millions of dollars. According to one GOP consultant, Republicans have to train their donors to give to outside groups.

Redistricting veterans caution that there is only so much that can be done from Washington, D.C., because redistricting is largely a state-by-state war.

“Ultimately, it’s about controlling the governors and the legislatures,” Davis said.

Governors play a direct role in redistricting (whether it is veto power or appointment of a commission) in all but eight states. And state legislatures will draw the lines in 36 states.

The Republican Governors Association and Republican State Leadership Committee are separately focused on winning gubernatorial and state legislative races in order to secure seats at the redistricting table.

“Nothing we do will be more important than what happens at the ballot box in 2009 [and] 2010,” according to one House GOP aide.

One factor that Republicans have on their side looking toward redistricting, Davis argued, is that most of the states with population growth lean toward the GOP. In addition, because of the massive Democratic gains in the past two election cycles, Davis said the Democratic strategy may be more about preserving the territory that they already have rather than carving new seats.

He estimated there are only about dozen states where it might be possible to draw a Member out of office.

“Democrats have so overperformed at this point, that there’s not a lot a lot of pickup that they’re going to be able to get in redistricting outside of California,” Davis said.

Fewer Republicans in Congress also means it’s likely fewer deals will get cut. Two of the key states where incumbent protection deals were cut last time — California and Illinois — are unlikely to see similar agreements this time, and both states favor Democrats gains.

Getting Members, outside groups and others to focus at this stage can be difficult, unless it’s made clear what is really at stake, Westmoreland said.

“I don’t think it’s too early, and I think it is a big story because it will determine the next 10 years of Congress,” he said.