The Republican Party, already hoping to take control of Congress, is undertaking an aggressive effort to seize control of governorships and state houses across the country, which in turn could help the GOP redraw congressional districts and exert more power over the next presidential campaign.
Democrats currently hold an edge in governorships and state legislatures, just as they control the US Senate and House. Midterm elections often provide a boost to the out-of-power party. But some analysts say that Republicans may get an extra boost this year due to a combination of grass-roots activism, continuing despair over the economy, and potential low turnout among dispirited Democrats.
Adding to the potential bonanza for Republicans is that this is also a US census year, meaning congressional districts across the nation will be redrawn based on the 2010 population statistics. The better the performance by Republicans at the local level, the more influence they will have in reshaping the political boundaries for the following election.
“It looks like a double win for the Republicans in the 2010 elections,’’ said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. “They’ll not only gain seats this time, but they’ll plant the seeds for gaining seats in 2012.’’
It is difficult to gauge how much more the Republicans will pump into legislative and gubernatorial races because the effort is spread throughout the country and is still in the early stages. But an example of the aggressive nature of the GOP strategy can be seen at the Republican State Leadership Committee. That group is running a project called REDSTATE, which has allocated $40 million aimed at winning state legislative races. That is nearly twice as much as the $22 million that the group spent in the last election cycle.
“This is a wave election year,’’ predicted Ed Gillespie, who heads the Republican State Leadership Committee.
The Republican Governors Association has moved aggressively in some races, including in Massachusetts, where it has spent about $2 million on ads that attack Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, an independent candidate for governor, and Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat.
Democratic groups did not respond to a request for comment on how much they expect to spend on state races.
Not only might Republicans have outsized influence in redistricting existing congressional districts, but the GOP might also gain under a national reapportionment of House seats based on population shifts. Massachusetts, for example, might lose one of its 10 House seats under reapportionment that would take effect in 2012.
The reapportionment will also affect the next presidential race because the number of electoral votes allocated to each state is based on the size of its House delegation, plus two more for its Senate seats. The states expected to lose seats are largely in the blue-state regions of the Northeast and industrial Northwest, meaning that the Democratic nominee for president will probably suffer more than the Republican nominee in 2012, said Tim Storey, a redistricting specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
With so much at stake, both parties are looking for any advantage in local races.
Democrats hold a slight advantage among governorships, claiming 26 to the GOP’s 24. This fall, 37 states have governor’s races, and 18 of the seats are now held by Republicans and 19 by Democrats. Among those seats, 12 incumbent Republicans and 12 incumbent Democrats are not on the ballot this fall, creating an unusually open field.
Independent political analysts expect the GOP to pick up as many as five new governorships, giving Republicans more power over congressional district lines in states now governed by Democrats.
Democrats have a larger margin in legislatures. Currently, 27 states have legislatures in which Democrats control both chambers; 14 host legislatures with GOP control of both houses; and in eight states, control is divided. (In Nebraska, the state legislature is unicameral and nonpartisan.)
Tom Reynolds, vice chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, predicted the GOP will win new majorities in anywhere from four to 16 state legislative chambers.
Democratic officials have acknowledged that the overall political environment this year is very challenging for their party, and independent analysts believe the trends could go beyond federal races to state and local contests.
“Certainly, the overall environment favoring Republicans nationally is likely to bleed down into these state legislative races. That’s what we usually see,’’ said Stu Rothenberg, a veteran campaign analyst and author of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Report. “You do have the possibility of protecting Republicans that win this time, maybe creating seats [for the GOP]. And when districts are eliminated [through reapportionment], it could be Democrats who find themselves out of a seat.’’
For example, in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio — all states expected to lose a congressional district — Democratic governors are in toss-up contests against their GOP challengers. In Michigan, a Republican is favored by political prognosticators to take over the governor’s mansion, and in New York, Republicans are well positioned to take back the state Senate.
Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidates are struggling in states that are expected to pick up House seats after reapportionment. In Texas, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada, for example, the governorships are considered tossups by pollsters and political analysts.
National party officials have a complicated task, helping their state and local candidates and creating the friendliest redistricting environment, since rules vary widely from state to state. Campaign finance rules are dramatically different. Massachusetts has some of the strictest campaign finance laws in the country, limiting individual and political action committee contributions and banning direct contributions from unions and corporations. States such as California, meanwhile, allow corporate and union contributions directly to state candidates.
“Because redistricting is at stake, you’re going to see a lot more money spent by the parties on governors races than has ever been spent,’’ said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Duffy said it is difficult to follow the spending because there is no central database to track spending on behalf of state and local candidates.
In most states, the governor and legislature create the redistricting lines; in seven states, a commission does the work. Redistricting in five New England states is done by the governor and legislature, but in Maine an advisory commission draws the lines.
If Massachusetts elects a Republican governor, that could put some pressure on the state Legislature to draw a district more amenable for a GOP contender, probably in the Western part of the state or around Cape Cod, where Republicans have a stronger presence, Berry of Tufts University said. The state’s 10-member House delegation is currently all Democratic.