As Redistricting Looms, Dems Step Up the Fight for State Legislatures

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Courtesy of Mike Wilson; AP

Mike Wilson, the Republican candidate for Ohio's 28th House District, is facing Democratic state representative Connie Pillich

In recent weeks, residents of the Cincinnati area have received a barrage of mail about Mike Wilson, the Republican candidate for Ohio's 28th House District. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), a national party organization that works to elect Democrats to state-legislature seats, has put out nine ads assailing Wilson, the Cincinnati Tea Party founder who is running to unseat Democratic state representative Connie Pillich. That may seem like a lot of resources to throw at a down-ticket skirmish. But Ohio's state house, where Democrats hold 53 of 99 seats, is a crucial combat zone in one of this fall's hidden, high-impact battles: the fight for control of the state legislative chambers that next year will redraw the electoral map.

It's a fight Democrats have won over the past few years. The party boasts 55% of the nation's 7,382 statehouse seats — the most it has held since before the Republican rout of 1994, and enough to control 60 legislatures nationwide, including both chambers in 27 states. (Republicans, by contrast, control 36 chambers and 14 states outright; two chambers — the Alaska senate and the Montana house — are tied, and Nebraska's legislature is unicameral.) In a cycle when the political headwinds seem likely to blow the U.S. House of Representatives and possibly the U.S. Senate back to the GOP, maintaining their edge in state legislatures would be a major victory for the Democrats. "Our legislative majorities are the firewall for the Democratic Party," says Michael Sargeant, executive director of the DLCC, which has spent more than $10 million so far this year to defend key chambers. "If we're able to hold our majorities, we'll make sure we have fair representation in Congress."

But it's highly unlikely they'll be able to hold all of them. After gaining ground in three straight cycles, Democrats are defending slim majorities in statehouses across the U.S., and experts expect a drubbing — one spurred partly by their own recent successes. "The pendulum is kind of at its apex, and it's ready to swing back," says Tim Storey, senior fellow at the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, who says Democratic losses could be in the range of 500 seats. Ed Gillespie, former head of the Republican National Committee and chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, says the GOP will flip at least 10 chambers. Among its key targets are the New York senate, the Alabama senate and the Pennsylvania, Indiana and Ohio houses. "Whoever controls these legislatures in most cases will be drawing congressional district lines for a decade," says Gillespie, who estimates his group will spend $18 million dollars on state races between Labor Day and Nov. 2. "We're likely to make big gains."

The Constitution requires that every 10 years, the U.S. reapportion congressional seats to correspond with fresh census data, which was gathered anew in 2010. In all but six states with more than one congressional district, the party that controls the state legislature and the governor's mansion gets to redefine federal, state and local boundaries, allowing it to pack its political opponents into as few districts as possible. The procedure, known as redistricting, can be ruthless and partisan; one state senator in Texas — where in 1993, Democrats twice fled across state lines en masse in an attempt to thwart a GOP redistricting quorum — has likened it to "letting children fill in their own report cards." Messy though it may be — allegations of gerrymandering and other violations prompted court challenges in more than 40 states after the last round of redistricting — it's nevertheless a crucial contest. "The war for legislative control is paramount," says Storey. "It will have a ripple effect through the rest of the decade."

The dark national mood is just one reason the forecast seems stormy for Democrats this time around. They also face an alarming historical trend. Since 1900, the party that occupies the White House has lost seats at the state level in 25 of 27 elections. (The exceptions? 1934, amid FDR's New Deal, and 2002, after the country coalesced behind George W. Bush in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.) Many of the majorities are narrow — according to the DLCC, 23 chambers in 17 states are within five seats of changing hands — and a well-oiled ground game could make the difference in many of these. "At the end of the day, these races are still about shoe leather, door-knocking and pancake breakfasts," Storey says. "You can still outwork your opponent."

Sargeant says he expects the Democrats to do well, noting that the DLCC kick-started its field operations earlier than ever, placing staffers in key states last spring. Some two dozen Democratic members lost their seats in Congress in the redistricting that followed the 2000 census. This time around, Ohio is expected to lose at least one congressional seat because of population migration from the Midwest to the Sun Belt. Which is another reason why the DLCC is bombarding residents of Ohio's 28th District with ads depicting frightened senior citizens and crestfallen families. If vulnerable incumbents like Pillich can help the Democrats hold the Ohio house, it would stave off at least one painful setback in a fall that may be full of them.