Thursday, September 2, 2010

What Else Is On the Line?

Many people — too many, in fact — think the 2010 midterm elections are only about which party controls the House and/or the Senate.

To be sure, that is one of the critical things that will be decided in November.

But there are other races that, in their own way, could have a longer–lasting influence on American government.

I am speaking about the races for governor. The winners of those races may wield important influence for the rest of this decade in the form of congressional redistricting based upon the eventual findings from this year's Census.

Yet hardly anyone speaks about this.

Here are the facts:

In 36 of the 50 states, the state legislature is responsible for coming up with a plan for redistricting. Whatever plan the legislature comes up with must be approved by the governor in many of these states.

A few states leave the task of redistricting up to an independent commission. A couple of states let such a commission come up with a plan, which then must be approved by the legislature.

Currently, seven states have populations that are so small that they only have one at–large representative in the House — and, for them, redistricting is not an issue, unless the Census shows that one (or more) of those states has grown enough to qualify for a second House seat.

If that happens, it is possible that the existing legislature might have to draft and vote on a law that spells out how redistricting is to be done. It might be an entirely new experience for a state.

But right now, I know of no state that is thought to have grown so much that it would qualify for a second House seat.

The statehouses are almost split down the middle as we head into the general election campaign. Democrats are governors in 26 states, Republicans are governors in 23 states and one Republican–turned–independent is a governor as well.

Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball now predicts the Republicans will gain eight governor's offices, thus taking a majority just when redistricting for this decade is due to commence.

In last week's projection, the Rothenberg Political Report was only slightly more restrained, anticipating that Republicans will add 6–8 statehouses to their total. But, even if the GOP has to settle for the low end of that range, it still comes out to a projection that there will be more Republican governors than Democratic governors by next January.

Barack Obama and the Democrats appear to be focused exclusively on what will happen in the congressional races in November. And that is something about which they should be concerned. It's also a nice change from the somewhat smug state of denial in which so many Democrats seemed to exist until the ill–fated "Recovery Summer" proved to be anything but.

And now, I think, the reality of the magnitude of the losses staring them in the face has frightened many Democrats. The president, as his party's leader, must try to do what he can to minimize losses in the statehouses as well. It won't be easy, and he probably won't succeed. But he must try.

He won't like having to do it. In the last 20 months, Obama has proven to be as artless at governing as he was artful at campaigning. But he could be the outsider in 2008. As president he has often exposed himself as not really having a taste for the way the game of politics is played.

It's really too late now to be acquiring that kind of touch. But if he doesn't, he will pay a price for it in the second half of his term, and the tab will come due in November 2012.

He will probably have to pay that price no matter what happens between now and November. But what he does may well decide whether his successors must continue to pay for it as well after he has left the Washington scene.

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