Election 2010: Beyond the National Results

The election of 2010 will be one for the history books.  Republicans won a historic 65 seats in the House of Representatives to gain control of that legislative body.  While many eyes were focused on the national balance of power, a seismic power shift occurred at the state level.

Last spring, I reported on both my blog and radio show (Amy Oliver Show) how the Democrats in Colorado planned to make a congressional seat safe through redistricting.  A local liberal blogger covering the Boulder County Democrat Assembly reported as Democrat Congressman Jared Polis spoke to the crowd:

Now going in to speaking for Betsy Markey – “the fighting 4th Congressional District.” Talking about the tremendous impact and difference that Betsy has made (boy is that true!). Then discusses getting Betsy in this time, then with redistricting we can make her seat safe (I think Betsy can hold it without redistricting – but hey, every little bit helps)

Redistricting is the process of redrawing congressional boundaries immediately following the census. In 36 states, redistricting is the responsibility of state legislatures.  Whichever party is in power has the advantage drawing boundaries favorable to them.

At the time, Polis’ threat was not out of the realm of possibility. Congresswoman Betsy Markey’s race was considered tough but winnable. She had beaten a Republican incumbent in a conservative district during the 2008 Democrat wave and she marketed herself as a Blue Dog Democrat. Also, Democrats controlled both Houses of the Colorado General Assembly and the Governor’s mansion.

Markey wins, and Democrats redraw the congressional boundaries so she is “safe” for as long as she wants the seat. This is just a microcosm of what would happen in states across the country.

Even the best-laid plans can be derailed. Congresswoman Betsy Markey ultimately lost her bid for re-election by 11 points to Republican challenger Cory Gardner. (Full disclosure: I live in the 4th CD and supported Gardner) And the Colorado State House went back to Republicans for the first time since 2004.  So Republicans will have a seat at the Colorado redistricting table.

While political power is divided in Colorado, the same cannot be said for many other states.  Republicans smashed Democrats in state legislative elections, capturing a majority of seats for the first time since 1928.  Stateline, a non-partisan news site for state issues, explained the magnitude of the Republican romp the day after the election: 

Republicans had taken about 18 legislative chambers from Democrats, with more statehouses hanging in the balance. Democrats hadn't picked up a single chamber from Republicans. So Republicans will have the upper hand when it comes to shaping state policy in the coming years. They'll also be in charge in most states as policymakers redraw legislative and congressional district lines next year.

Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures described the Republican advantage this way, "The GOP, in dramatic fashion, finds itself now in the best position for both congressional and state legislative line drawing than it has enjoyed in the modern era of redistricting."

The numbers are impressive:

  • Republicans hold 53 percent of all state legislative seats.
  • Republicans control 54 of 99.
  • Republicans flipped 18 state houses.
  • Democrats didn’t flip any.
  • Republicans took control of the North Carolina State Senate for the first time since 1870.
  • Republicans won control of both of Alabama’s state house for the first time since Reconstruction.

Stateline summed it up:

[T]his was no typical midterm rebalancing. From 1956 to 2002 Democrats controlled a majority of the nation's legislative seats. Democrats quickly regained their majorities whenever they lost them. But now Republicans will have their most clear-cut advantage since before the Great Depression.

While Republicans may have a numbers advantage that doesn’t mean they can run roughshod over their Democrat counterparts.  We do still have a court system that often hears redistricting cases.  I have a feeling their dockets will be full before the next congressional election.

Amy Oliver Cooke is the founder of Mothers Against Debt and director of the Colorado Transparency Project for the Independence Institute.  She can be reached at MAD@i2i.org.

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