The 2010 elections are important not only because they will determine who will represent us until the next election, but also because 2011 is a redistricting year. These elected officials will thus have the ability to shape political power in Congress and state legislatures for the next decade.
In the year following the decennial census, states redraw their legislative districts in order to balance their populations to ensure all people have equal representation. This mechanical-sounding adjustment is required by the federal constitution, but much more takes place. Party leaders can use redistricting as an opportunity to help their incumbents win reelection by swapping undesirable constituents with those more favorable to the party, they can attempt to expand their majorities by creating new districts that their party may win, and they can wreak havoc on their opponents by grouping their incumbents together and diminishing their reelection chances by manipulating their constituencies. These redistricting strategies have a special name, gerrymandering.
Republicans are anticipating that the fortunate timing of a wave election with redistricting will allow them to gerrymander in ways that will help them win control of the House of Representatives and state legislative chambers throughout the coming decade. Democrats dispute that they are as bad off as the Republicans claim. Still, the Republican position has become conventional wisdom in the press, see: here, here, and here. The most dramatic of these stories by Peter Roff at U.S. News and World Report proclaims, "Election 2010 Redistricting Gains Will Give GOP Lasting Majority."
I've made a state-by-state assessment of the three-dimension chess board that is apportionment, the 2010 elections, and redistricting. Here's what I've found.
The best case for Republicans is that they will be in the same position as they were ten years ago: they will control the redistricting process in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas and they will control a point in the process to block Democrats in California, Illinois, and New York. (In 2001, California Democrats and Republicans compromised even though Democrats controlled the state government, see my assessment for a full explanation for each state.) We know how well that worked out for them. The best case for Democrats is that they will block Republicans in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas and they will control California, Illinois, and New York, a significant improvement from their position ten years ago.
As the redistricting season unfolds, I will continue to track what is going on where. But as of now, I think it is safe to say that Republicans will not be able to use the 2011 redistricting to give themselves a lasting majority.