The political world is fixated on whether this year's elections will deliver an epic rebuke of President Barack Obama and his party. If that happens, it could end up costing Democrats congressional seats for a decade to come.
Some of the most important contests this fall will be way down the ballot in communities like Portsmouth, Ohio and West Lafayette, Ind., and neighborhoods like Brushy Creek in Round Rock, Texas, and Murrysville Township in Westmoreland County, Pa. These are state legislative races that will determine who redraws congressional district lines after this year's census, a process that could determine which party controls upwards of 20 seats and whether many other seats will be competitive.
Next year, legislatures in the 44 states with more than one congressional seat will adjust their districts' boundaries to account for changes in population.
Some 18 state legislatures could have an additional task. As many as 10 states will have to combine districts as they lose House seats. Eight states are expected to gain at least one seat each.
Seats will almost certainly move out of Democratic states (such as Michigan, New York and Massachusetts) and into Republican-leaning, faster-growing states (such as Arizona, Georgia, Texas and Utah). Battleground states such as Iowa and Ohio might also lose seats. This process will be marked by a historic event: For the first time since joining the union in 1850, California will probably not get any additional seat in Congress.
Control of the state legislature matters whether a state loses or gains seats. Take fast-growing Texas, which is expected to pick up as many as four seats next year. Democrats had a 17-13 edge in the state's congressional delegation after the 2000 elections. Republicans won control of the Texas House in 2002 and redrew the state's congressional map. As a result, the GOP now controls 20 congressional seats in Texas while Democrats control 12. Similarly in Georgia, following the 2000 census Democrats redrew district lines to give themselves control of the state's two new congressional seats.
In Pennsylvania, Republicans controlled 11 congressional seats and Democrats 10 before reapportionment cost the Keystone State two seats in 2001. Afterward, the Republican legislature redrew the map to the GOP's advantage, creating 12 Republican seats and seven Democratic ones. (Democrats later picked up some of those GOP seats.)
To understand the broader political implications, consider that the GOP gained somewhere between 25 and 30 seats because of the redistricting that followed the 1990 census. Without those seats, Republicans would not have won the House in 1994.
Control of redistricting also has huge financial implications. The average winner of a competitive House race in 2008 spent $2 million, while a noncompetitive seat can be defended for far less than half that amount. Moving, say, 20 districts from competitive to out-of-reach could save a party $100 million or more over the course of a decade.
There are 18 state legislative chambers that have four or fewer seats separating the two parties that are important for redistricting. Seven of these are controlled by Republicans and the other 11 are controlled by Democrats, including the lower houses in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
Republican strategists are focused on 107 seats in 16 states. Winning these seats would give them control of drawing district lines for nearly 190 congressional seats. Six of these states are projected to pick up a total of nine seats, and five are expected to lose a combined six seats.
Nationally, the GOP's effort will be spearheaded by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC). Funded by 80,000 donors, it spent more than $20 million in the last election cycle on legislative races and for attorney general, lieutenant governor and secretary of state campaigns.
The group recently announced that former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie will serve as its chairman and former New York Rep. Tom Reynolds will serve as both the group's vice chairman and chair of a special redistricting effort.
Democrats already have a galaxy of at least six national groups coordinating on state legislative races. Among them are the union-based Foundation for the Future, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, and the Democracy Alliance. The last group has distributed $110 million for down-ballot races in recent years.
Over the past year and a half, Republicans have picked up six seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and one seat in the New Jersey Assembly and won 48 state legislative special elections, for a net gain nationally of 19 seats.
If the president's dismal approval ratings cost his party additional state legislative seats and with them control of redistricting this fall, there will be plenty of Democrats bitter about how Mr. Obama has brought low his party's fortunes. It seems that no Democrat, at any level, is immune to the politically poisonous effects of the Obama presidency.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, March 3, 2010.