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Eyes on the prize

Issue: "California: Bellwether state," Oct. 24, 1998

Redistricting: How local politics could dramatically affect the balance of power in Washington

With all eyes on the House and Senate, the 36 gubernatorial races around the country have gotten little attention. But experts say that taken together, those races are the most important event of this political season. The GOP may have a lock on Congress for the next two years, but its prospects in the next millennium may depend largely on who is elected to the statehouses. Republicans currently hold 32 governorships and hope to increase that number to 36 on Nov. 3. GOP incumbents look endangered in Alabama and vulnerable in South Carolina, but elsewhere Republicans are poised to pick up open seats even in such normally Democratic bastions as Maryland. With Jeb Bush looking like a shoo-in in Florida, the GOP could be at the helm of the five largest states-if Dan Lungren can keep California, the biggest prize of all, in Republican hands. "As goes California, so goes the nation" may be a bit of an overstatement, but Congress and the presidency may well go the way of the Golden State. Republican hopes for the White House hinge largely on California's 54 electoral votes, about one-fifth of the total needed to win. A Republican in Sacramento could help immensely in delivering that electoral prize. Even more important, though, may be the effect of the election on the makeup of Congress for the coming decade. That's because California's next governor will preside over his state's redistricting following the 2000 census. With 18 million new residents expected by the turn of the century, California should merit 56 congressional districts-more than one out of every eight in the entire country. Redrawing the lines of that many districts holds the potential for shifting the balance of power in the House beginning in 2002. Partisans on both sides point out that the state has a proud history of gerrymandering its congressional districts. Following the 1950 census, Republicans created enough right-leaning districts to swing control of the House their way for a single term. In 1980, a re-drawing led by Gov. Jerry Brown resulted in as many as seven additional Democratic seats, giving their party an edge in the state's congressional delegation. The pendulum swung the other way after the 1990 census, which some observers credit with contributing to the GOP takeover of the House in 1994. The next redistricting will likely continue the tradition. Mr. Lungren has said publicly that with Democrats in charge after 2000, 12 seats could be swiped from Republicans-a net change of 24. How big a deal is that? For the next Congress, a net change of 22 seats from the current makeup would put Dick Gephardt in the Speaker's chair.

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