By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 11/5/2010 9:52:27 AM ET 2010-11-05T13:52:27

Republican gains in the House and Senate were the fodder for huge headlines on Wednesday morning, but it is the party's gains in down-ballot local races that may have created the most lasting protection for the GOP's new majority in the House of Representatives.

Once every decade, state legislators begin the process of redrawing congressional districts to reflect changes in population, a process that can serve to insulate representatives from future difficult re-elections.

According to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans will now hold about 53 percent of the total state legislative seats across the country. Republicans gained at least 680 seats, the largest gain by either party since 1966, said NCSL.

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The significance of the state elections was underscored by the fact that one of the GOP's most experienced strategists, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, is now the chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee and helped direct GOP redistricting strategy.

In a strategy memo last August, Michael Sargeant, head of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), said “Of all the contests on the ballot this fall, state legislative races may be the least conspicuous; they also may be more important to the long-term health of the Democratic Party than all the rest combined.”

At issue are two different procedures:

Reapportionment: The number of seats in the U.S. House is fixed by law at 435. Every 10 years, after the Census has counted the population, some states gain House seats, others lose them to reflect shifts in populations.

New York, for example, went from having 43 House members in 1960 to 29 today. Florida has grown from eight House members in 1960 to 25 today.

In the reapportionment next year, states that will lose seats in the House include New York, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Pennsylvania; gainers will include Alabama, Texas, Utah, Florida, Arizona, Nevada and Washington.

“Of the 18 states that are either going to gain or lose seats after reapportionment, Republicans will have majorities in 10 of those states,” Gillespie said.

Redistricting: In most states, legislators, with advice from expert demographers and lawyers and with the final say of the governor, draw the new congressional district lines. State legislators draw the maps for 383 of the 435 seats in the House.

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In most cases, governors can veto remapping plans and sometimes force legislatures dominated by the opposing party to alter plans to help protect his party’s incumbents.

In eight states, bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions handle the task.

The remapping takes into account the population shifts within states, the desire to protect incumbents and, of course, partisan advantage.

Even the most intensely partisan-minded mapping of congressional districts within a state can’t make a place such as Philadelphia, where 85 percent of the voters vote Democratic, into a Republican-leaning area, and vice versa.

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But at the margins, partisan mapping, or gerrymandering, can help one party keep a seat or make the party competitive in a place where it hadn’t been before.

(In a 2004 decision, the Supreme Court essentially ruled that the partisan gerrymandering doesn't violate the Constitution.)

For instance, Pennsylvania’s 6th congressional district was artfully drawn in 2001, sprawling for 60 miles over portions of four counties, to help Republican Jim Gerlach win and retain that district. And he has done so, winning his fifth straight election on Tuesday.

Sargeant’s pre-election memo highlighted Alabama, Ohio, New York, Indiana and Pennsylvania as among the states where Democrats had control of at least one house of the state legislature and needed to retain it.

When the results came in Tuesday, the Democrats had lost the chambers they had controlled in Alabama, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Those states now have legislatures in which both chambers are GOP controlled.

Battle in the Great Lakes
The battle for control of the New York state Senate is still undecided.

In the Great Lakes region, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin, GOP gains in legislative races Tuesday will allow Republicans to control redistricting.

Republican governors were also elected in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin on Tuesday, while Indiana’s Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, will be in office for redistricting.

Story: GOP poised to win redistricting supremacy, too

“Those are areas where I think we’ll see some pretty dramatic impacts on the redistricting process,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie told reporters Wednesday that GOP legislators will be in position next year to redraw the maps to help solidify between 15 and 25 otherwise vulnerable GOP House seats.

This will be a particular advantage to the new Republican House members elected Tuesday in the states where legislatures will switch from Democratic to Republican control: the belt of five Great Lakes states from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin.

On Tuesday five new House Republican members were elected in Ohio, five in Pennsylvania, two in Indiana, three (possibly four) in Illinois and two in Wisconsin.

As he looked toward the new maps being drawn, Gillespie said, “I’m not sure how much we’re going to gain in terms of seats because it was such a big election for (House) Republicans, I think we’re going to end up protecting a lot as opposed to carving new ones.”

Also on Tuesday, five freshman Republicans were elected to the House from New York — even though a weak gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino was at the top of the Republican ticket. (He got only 34 percent of the vote.)

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If the GOP can win or at least split the New York Senate “we’ll have a better chance of protecting those five freshman Republicans so that they’re not drawn out of their seats — especially in a state that is going to lose two seats in the apportionment process,” Gillespie said.

But Carolyn Fiddler, spokeswoman for the DLCC, said, “Everything we're hearing is that worst case scenario is a tie, and we may still win an outright majority. Even if there's a tie, Democrats have effective control, since the lieutenant governor functions as president of the state Senate and has a (deciding) vote in the event of tie votes.”

Fiddler also pointed to some good news for Democrats in Tuesday’s outcome. In the 2001 redistricting, she said, Democrats had the redistricting “trifecta” (control of both houses of the legislature and the governorship) in seven states: Alabama, California, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina and West Virginia. That gave them the power to design maps for 101 seats in the House.

“For 2011, it's looking as though we'll have the trifecta in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island (effectively), and West Virginia. That comes out to 129 congressional districts, given current reapportionment predictions.”

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