South, West expected to pick up House seats after census

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 16, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Sun Belt states and those in the West are expected to gain even more political clout when the Census Bureau announces on Tuesday which states will gain congressional seats and which will lose them.

Among the likely winners are Washington state, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, South Carolina and Utah. The likely losers are such Rust Belt states as Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Ohio.

While it may be an insider's game, the political stakes are high.

Every 10 years since 1787, the census has determined how many House seats each state will have. It's called apportionment. The 435 seats in the House will be divvied up among the 50 states based on population figures collected in the decennial census.

If the projections hold true, it could be good news for Republicans, according to some political analysts. Rust Belt states traditionally have trended Democratic, while Republicans have done well across the South and into the Southwest.

"Theoretically, it favors Republicans," said Kimball Brace, the president of Election Data Services, a Virginia political consulting firm that specializes in redistricting and in analyzing census and political data.

Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, was more emphatic.

"It's impossible to see how Republicans don't pick up a dozen or more House seats," Sabato said.

Sabato, Brace and others cautioned that until the census figures are released and the states draw up their congressional boundaries, it's all a guess. But it fits with a trend that's been under way since the 1940s, with people moving South and West.

"People are tired of snow and they have air conditioning in Florida," Brace said. "Unless there is a major change in weather patterns, this will continue."

The reapportionment also could have implications in the race for the White House in coming years.

The 538 citizens elected to the Electoral College determine who becomes president. The makeup of the Electoral College is in part based on the number of seats in the House of Representatives that each state has. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the presidency, and there have been close races. In 2000, after a Supreme Court ruling, Republican George W. Bush received 271 electoral votes to defeat Democrat Al Gore.

Sabato said Republicans could gain a net of seven more electors if the census numbers come in as expected.

"It will be a wild ride," Nathan Gonzales, the political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said of the coming redistricting. "We have to look at this on a state-by-state level, but the census puts more skin on a process that has been abstract."

Gonzales said new computer technology should help in drawing the lines of individual congressional districts, but in the end "politics are still involved."

Seven states have taken redistricting out of the hands of their legislatures and turned it over to some form of independent or ideally nonpartisan commission or panel. But in the rest, state legislatures draw the new boundaries.

That's why the just-finished election was so important. While most of the attention focused on the congressional races, savvy political veterans kept a close watch on the state-by-state legislative returns.

In the end, it was a Republican tidal wave, said Sabato, whose Center for Politics tracked the outcome of the local races.

"They got the least attention, but they are the most significant," he said.

There are now more Republican state legislators — 3,941 — than at any time since they had 4,001 seats after the 1928 election, said Tim Storey, who analyzed the results for the Center for Politics.

Over the past two years, Republicans have picked up more than 720 legislative seats, and they now control 25 state legislatures. The Democrats control 16, eight are split and one — Nebraska's — is nonpartisan.

"You don't want to get wiped in an election year that ends in a zero," Gonzales said.

The states have to complete their redistricting by the 2012 election, and the changes will be evident when the113th Congress convenes in 2013.

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