The reins of political power in the U.S. for the next decade could be determined in this year's elections — not necessarily by who wins the presidency, but by thousands of lower-profile contests for state legislative seats across the country.
In many states, the winners of those legislative races will have a role in drawing new districts for Congress or state legislatures based on the 2020 census. If a political party can win control of those state legislative chambers now, it can draw voting districts to boost its chances in future elections.
"The 2020 election is the premier election when it comes to redistricting, because it is the election that will set the players in place who will do redistricting come 2021," said Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Voters will be electing more than 5,000 state lawmakers in 35 states who will play a significant role in crafting or passing new maps for Congress or state House and Senate districts. Voters also will be electing governors in eight states who could enact or veto those maps.
The Constitution requires a census once every 10 years. That population count then is used to redraw districts for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislative chambers. States that grow rapidly can gain congressional seats while those that fail to keep pace can lose seats. Migration among cities, suburbs and rural areas also can lead to changes in district lines to try to equalize the number of residents in each voting jurisdiction.
Seven states have only one congressional district because of their small populations. Of the remaining 43 states, eight use redistricting commissions for Congress that leave little or no role for the state legislature. Eleven of the 50 states rely on independent commissions for redistricting their state House and Senate seats. The rest involve lawmakers in the process, and most also give governors a say.
Republicans generally outmaneuvered Democrats during the last round of redistricting by converting big wins in the 2010 state elections into favorable maps for the future. Democrats successfully challenged some of those maps in court, forcing them to be redrawn, but others have remained in place for the full decade.
This time, Democrats are pouring more money into the redistricting fight. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has boosted its fundraising target from about $10 million during the 2009-2010 election cycle to $50 million in the 2019-2020 elections. Various Democratic-aligned groups are kicking in tens of millions more, including the National Democratic Redistricting Committee led by former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder.
"We've got the next 10 years of politics at stake in these elections," said Patrick Rodenbush, communications director for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
The Republican State Leadership Committee, which calls its redistricting campaign "Right Lines 2020," hasn't disclosed a fundraising goal for the year. But it had a target of as much as $50 million for state legislative and down-ballot statewide races during the 2017-18 election cycle.
"This is the long-term investment," Republican State Leadership Committee President Austin Chambers said. "This is about making sure that we have a congressional majority and a conservative majority across the country at the state and local level for the next decade."
THE BIG FOUR
Four of the biggest redistricting prizes in the 2020 legislative elections are Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia. Those states combined account for 90 U.S. House seats, one-fifth of the nationwide total, and Republicans currently hold more than 60% of them. Texas, Florida and North Carolina all are projected to gain congressional seats because of their population growth, which would give the party in power an opportunity to shape new districts to their liking.
All four states have complete Republican control in their state legislatures, giving them an edge in redistricting, although Florida's constitution says districts can't be drawn to favor a political party. Texas, Florida and Georgia also have Republican governors who were elected to four-year terms in 2018.
Texas has 36 U.S. House seats, second only to California, and the potential to gain as many as three more because of its rapid growth.
"The reality is Texas is the crown jewel of redistricting," said Vicky Hausman, co-founder of Forward Majority, a Democratic organization that is targeting key Republican-led legislatures in the 2020 elections.
If Democrats could flip control of at least one legislative chamber in GOP-led states, they could gain leverage for redistricting compromises that could increase their odds of winning future elections and building their majority in Congress.
"A lot of where we're trying to win would be disruption, like Texas, that has to force Democrats and Republicans to work together for maps," said Matt Harringer, press secretary for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
In North Carolina, all congressional and some state legislative candidates will be running under newly redrawn districts this year after state courts stopped the use of prior maps drawn by the Republican-led Legislature. Democrats had argued that the old districts were an example of extreme partisan gerrymandering. Republicans hold 10 of North Carolina's 13 seats in the U.S. House, even though statewide elections between Republicans and Democrats are usually close.
Democrats would need to gain five state Senate seats and six state House seats to flip control of the chambers. North Carolina's governor, a Democrat who is up for re-election in 2020, is irrelevant in redistricting because the office has no power to sign or veto the plans passed by the Legislature.
North Carolina "is going to be one of the top spends for our committee in 2020, and we're going to do everything in our power to maintain the state House and the state Senate," said Chambers, of the Republican state committee.
Ohio has long been a top redistricting target for the political parties. After the 2010 census, Republicans controlled the House, Senate, governor's office and other key executive offices that gave them firm control over redistricting. Republicans still control Ohio government.
But a pair of constitutional amendments approved by voters since the last census have changed the redistricting process to inject greater bipartisanship. After the 2020 census, a congressional redistricting plan must receive a 60% vote in both the House and Senate — including support from at least half the minority party members in each chamber — to last for the full decade. A similar bipartisan threshold is required from the commission of elected officials that handles state legislative redistricting.
Winning control of the Ohio House or Senate would be difficult for Democrats, yet each seat they can gain will increase the number of Democratic votes needed for the Republican majorities to enact new districts,.
Slim margins also could make a big difference in the historically Republican state of Kansas.
Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, will be able to veto redistricting plans passed by the Republican-led Legislature. The question is whether Republicans will have the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto and be able to stick together if they do. In the Senate, Republicans currently hold 29 of the 40 seats — two more than the override threshold. In the House, Republicans hold 84 of the 125 seats — exactly what's needed for an override.
In some states with politically divided governments, Democrats will be making a play in the 2020 elections to win full control of redistricting while Republicans will be seeking to hold on to a seat at the table.
Minnesota currently is the only state where Democrats control one legislative chamber and Republicans the other. But the 75-59 Democratic majority in the House is more solid than the 35-32 Republican majority in the Senate. If Democrats gain two Senate seats, they would hold the trifecta of redistricting power, because they already control the governor's office.
In New Hampshire, the redistricting battle centers around the 2020 gubernatorial election. Democrats currently control the state House and Senate while the governor's office is held by Republican Chris Sununu, who is running for re-election. In August, Sununu vetoed a bipartisan measure that would have created an independent commission to redraw the state's legislative districts. Sununu said there was no need for it because the current process — which allows the governor to veto redistricting plans passed by the legislature — is fair.
Pennsylvania and Wisconsin also are redistricting targets for both Democrats and Republicans. Both states have Democratic governors who aren't up for re-election in 2020 and Republican legislative majorities that remain short of the threshold needed to override vetoes. Unless one party wins big in the 2020 legislative elections, compromise may be necessary during the next round of congressional redistricting.
The 2020 elections won't matter at all in some states — at least not when it comes to redistricting.
That's the case in the nation's most populous state of California, which will use a 14-member citizens commission to draw its congressional and state legislative districts after the 2020 census. Not only are lawmakers excluded from the commission, but so are other federal and state employees, political party officials, campaign staff members, lobbyists and big political donors. The only role for state legislative leaders is in whittling down the list of applicants before the members — five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents — are randomly selected.
Michigan had been expected to be a big redistricting battleground in the 2020 legislative elections. But a ballot measure approved in 2018 by voters created an independent commission to handle the task that had previously been the domain of the legislature and governor. Michigan's process is now similar to California's.
Other states with independent redistricting commissions include Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington.
Missouri and Pennsylvania use independent commissions only for state legislative districts, not congressional ones, so the 2020 elections still can have an impact on redistricting in those states. Though Republicans aren't likely to lose their grip on Missouri's legislature, Democrats are mounting a challenging to the incumbent GOP governor this year.