Why the Census may be bad news for Missouri Democrats

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 17, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The Census will make clear on Tuesday what has been speculated about in Missouri political circles for a while: The state could lose a congressional seat effective the 2012 elections.

Democrats could be most at risk.

Going into the 2011 Congress, they will hold only three seats in the nine-member House delegation because the party just lost Rep. Ike Skelton's district in the November midterm elections.

But they might have trouble keeping that many. It depends on how the Republican-led Missouri House of Representatives draws the new congressional district map next year, and whether Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, will agree.

It's all based on population, but politics overshadows everything.

"It could create open warfare," said David Wasserman, a congressional analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Every round of redistricting features games of musical chairs. This time one game will play out in Missouri…because the population loss in St. Louis will necessitate altering those seats dramatically."

The city has two Democratic congressmen: Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan. But Clay, who represents the 1st Congressional District, has a large African American constituency, which would likely be protected by the Voting Rights Act from dramatic geographic changes.

Meanwhile, Carnahan's district, the 3rd, has experienced slow population growth and could conceivably be combined with another, forcing two incumbents to battle for one seat in 2012.

"We'd be worried about everybody at this point," said Brian Zuzanek, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party. "We want to maintain at least three Democrats."

Losing a seat could reverberate in the 2012 presidential race, as well.

Missouri has been a pretty reliable presidential bellwether over the years. Its 11 electoral votes are also usually in play, often the last piece in a political jigsaw puzzle for how a candidate can reach the magic number 270 and win White House.

"If we would lose a member of Congress, that makes us have less of an impact on an election for president," said Lloyd Smith, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party. "I don't think it takes us completely out of play. Missouri is still going to be right here in the heartland."

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

The last time Missouri lost seat was in 1981 when the congressional delegation dropped from 10 to nine. The battle over redistricting ended up in court.

Kansas, which has four congressional seats, is expected to remain unchanged.

But Missouri would be among several Midwestern and Rust Belt states seeing the fruits of population declines that began in the 1940s. Small towns have been hit particularly hard.

Besides Missouri, potential losers are Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Ohio.

Sun Belt states, however, and those in the Far West are expected to gain even more political clout with the Census Bureau announcement. Among the likely winners are Washington, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, South Carolina and Utah.

While it may be an insiders' game, in the political world the stakes are high.

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

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

Larry Sabato, 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," he said.

Seven states have taken their redistricting out of the hands of their legislature and turned it over to some form of independent or ideally non-partisan 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.

And in the end, it was a Republican tidal wave, said Sabato, whose Center for Politics closely tracked the outcome of the local races. "They got the least attention, but they are the most significant," Sabato 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 over 720 legislative seats and now control 25 state legislatures, while the Democrats control 16, eight are split and one is non-partisan.

The states have to complete their redistricting by the 2012 election and the changes will be evident when the 113th Congress convenes in 2013.

Several experts cautioned that until the Census figures are released and the states actually draw up their congressional boundaries, it's all a guess.

Smith was hopeful: "I think we're on the bubble," he said.

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