Politics

The real battle is at the state level

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While much attention is focused on the federal elections, a more profound change might be underway in state legislatures across the country.

Controlling the statehouses is important for two reasons. One, that’s where the future leaders of both parties cut their teeth. Being in control means being able to point to a track record of legislative achievement. It’s better practice for governing on a national level than being a perennial opposition party.

More directly, it’s the state legislatures that draw Congressional districts after each census. Whichever party controls the statehouses in 2010-11 will be able to draw those districts to their advantage, cementing a decade-long advantage at the national level.

Right now the parties are almost evenly divided. Republicans control both chambers in 20 states; Democrats have that advantage in 19. They are virtually tied in the number of statehouse seats they hold.

If the Democratic wave at the national level is mirrored in local results, Democrats could be poised to take over a solid majority of statehouses. If they retain that control in 2010, it could redraw the political map in their favor.

To be clear, I think gerrymandering is terrible. I’ve written before about the need to come up with objective formula for drawing districts, and even discussed some proposals for doing exactly that.

So I’m not celebrating the idea of Democrats being able to gerrymander in 2010. But it’s hard to overestimate the long-term significance of the local races.