Low on the Ballot, but High in Impact

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Think the presidential race has been the ultimate battle in this year's election? Maybe not. This week, while George W. Bush and Al Gore argued over who won the battle for the White House, the Republican and Democratic parties have been fighting largely unnoticed trench warfare for a prize many believe is even more important: "the map." One pre-ballot GOP memo called it "the real political battlefield in 2000."

That battlefield is the once-obscure races for state legislative seats.

Why were the 5,910 state House and Senate elections suddenly so crucial to both national parties? Because state assemblies across the country, armed with the 2000 census figures, will soon begin to draw lines for new congressional districts. In most states, the party that controls the legislature and governor's seat also controls the map and can draw the lines in ways that can shape the Congress for the next 10 years. "We're calling it the hidden election," says David Israelite, director of politics and government affairs for the Republican National Committee. "What happens in these state legislative bodies will have a drastic impact on who controls the Congress after 2002."

Millions Spent on State Races

That explains why in the Texas Senate's 3rd District — a vast stretch of prairies and farms in the eastern part of the state where cattle and chickens easily outnumber voters — the Republican candidate, Todd Staples, amassed a staggering $2.8 million campaign war chest. Celebrities such as Chuck Norris and Nolan Ryan were flown in to campaign for him. Staples' opponent, a Silsbee, Tex., lawyer named David Fisher, amassed $1.9 million, most of it going to carpet-bomb TV airwaves with ads the 10 weeks before the vote.

These two good ol' boys were rolling in cash — the Republican party also pumped in $200,000 and the Democratic party poured in $150,000 — because both parties were desperate for control of the Texas State Senate. With only a one-seat majority, the Republicans were concerned that if Staples lost the election and the upper chamber went Democratic, it would be disastrous for the state GOP's control of the congressional map, particularly if the Democrats kept control of the Texas House. The only Republican at the table when the map lines were drawn would be the governor.

Staples ended up winning the seat and things didn't change much in the Texas legislature. Democrats kept control of the state's House of Representatives and the GOP held on to the state Senate (but by the same one-seat margin). Much the same can be said for the rest of the country. "We fought each other to a draw in the nation's state legislatures," says Kevin Mack, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Going into the elections, Democrats controlled the legislatures in 19 states and Republicans controlled the chambers in 17 states, with 13 states under split control. After Tuesday, Democrats controlled the legislatures in 17 states and Republicans controlled 17 states, with 15 now split.

Redistricting for the Next Decade

Both parties invested a lot to reach that draw. The Republican and Democratic parties, through various operating arms, poured more than $10 million each into state races. Add to that millions of dollars more that came from labor unions, chambers of commerce and special interest groups with a stake in redistricting. "You're seeing a fair amount of money around the country going to really obscure races," says Stephen Brown, counsel to Impac 2000, a body that the Democratic party set up to look out for its interests in the redistricting fights. "In the state house and state senate, these guys are seeing money they never dreamed of before. It's the congressionalization of the state legislative races."

But both sides saw it as money well spent. "These state legislatures will be using the results of the 2000 census to redraw the boundaries of the districts of the House members being elected to Congress in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010," says Thomas Hofeller, a Ph.D. expert in demographics and census statistics whom the Republican National Committee has hired to help the GOP gain control over the maps.

The fight for such control, in fact, went deeper into the weeds than just the legislative races. Rules governing how the maps are drawn and procedures for carrying out the redistricting can vary from state to state. In many states, the courts get involved to draw lines if the legislature and governor can't agree, or to settle challenges to redistricting. In Michigan, for example, if the legislature and governor can't agree on the congressional map, it goes to the state Supreme Court for the Justices to draw the lines. That explains why a whopping $15 million was dumped on the Michigan State Supreme Court race this year, more than $4 million of it coming from various Republican and Democratic party sources.

Other Groups Fight to Have Their Say

But winning state elections on Tuesday was just the start of the battle. Redistricting can still be a messy process even if one party wins all the seats at the map-drawing table. "There's no guarantee it will be a well-oiled machine just because one party controls the governor's mansion and legislatures," says Tim Storey, a redistricting expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures. A party can't draw every line as it pleases or the courts will overturn the map. The lines also have to comply with the Voting Rights Act to give minorities a fair shot at controlling some of the congressional seats. With widely available computer technology, citizens or public interest groups armed with compact disks full of the latest census data can draw lines just as well as the politicians.

Democrats and Republicans are already gearing up for court challenges of the redistricting plans that will be drawn up next year. The RNC's Hofeller has teams of experts ready to fan out across the country to help Republican legislators draw maps. Impac 2000, for the Democrats, has dispatched teams of redistricting experts to congressional delegations in practically every state. Impac 2000, which has been up and running for two years, has sophisticated computer programs on census and voting patterns that can crunch out racial and party voting patterns for every city block in the country." What you're looking for is any chink in the armor," says Brown. He predicts that the redistricting plans for 47 states will end up in court. (In the 1990 redistricting, 41 states had their plans challenged in court.)