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Democrats Eye Remap Payback

Leaders Target Illinois, N.M.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has spoken with several Democratic governors in recent weeks about the possibility of revisiting their states’ Congressional lines in response to the ongoing Republican-led redistricting in Georgia, according to informed party sources.

Faced with the prospect of Republicans redrawing Congressional lines in a third state since the initial 2001 round of redistricting ended, a faction of national Democrats is urging an aggressive strategy aimed at striking back at Republican House Members in states like New Mexico and Illinois.

“We have to stop playing defense and go on the offensive,” said Howard Wolfson, who served as executive director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2002 cycle and is now a consultant with the Glover Park Group.

“The only way to stop them from doing this is to make them pay a price for it somewhere else,” said a longtime House strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Democrats believe their best opportunities lie in Illinois, New Mexico and Louisiana, where Democrats have seized control of all the levers of state government in those states since the 2001 reapportionment and redistricting.

Democratic Govs. Rod Blagojevich (Ill.) and Bill Richardson (N.M.) as well as high-ranking Louisiana elected officials have been contacted by members of House leadership led by Hoyer since the Georgia legislature began their re-redistricting.

“Some of us who believe Georgia is going to happen think that it will help us strategically, to motivate some governors that weren’t interested in doing it to help us,” said one source who works closely with House Democrats.

At least a few D.C.-based Republicans privately acknowledge they are concerned about the possibility of Democratic retribution over the maneuvers in Georgia, but are not in a position to change the situation.

Other Democrats counseled caution to their own party, urging leaders to put all their focus on fighting the latest Republican effort in Georgia, where several maps restructuring the state’s lines are currently under consideration by the Legislature.

While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has not yet taken a formal position on the matter, she has generally been opposed to reconfiguring the lines in Illinois and New Mexico in the past.

Steve Murphy, a partner in the Democratic media consulting firm Murphy Putnam Shorr, called the Georgia effort “completely inappropriate halfway through the redistricting cycle.”

As for taking the initiative in other states, Murphy said: “Democrats should cross that bridge when we come to it and fight like hell in Georgia.”

Regardless of the tactics Democrats may eventually choose, what is clear is that redistricting is no longer simply a once-a-decade process but rather part of the ongoing struggle by both parties to make gains in the House.

“Reformers are worried about money in politics,” Murphy said. “Redistricting is the real scandal.”

Since the nationwide redistricting in 2001, Republicans have sought to change the lines to favor their party in Texas, Colorado and now Georgia.

In Colorado the state legislature approved new lines that would have strengthened 7th district Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) and made the open 3rd district more Republican.

The state Supreme Court overruled the new map in late 2003, citing the Colorado Constitution, which forbids redistricting to occur more than once a decade.

Beauprez went on to a surprisingly easy win under the more competitive lines in November, but Republicans lost hold of the 3rd district when now-Democratic Rep. John Salazar claimed the open seat.

Republicans were much more successful in Texas where a re-redistricting championed by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) led to the gain of five seats in the state by the GOP — the key element in the three-seat pickup nationally by the party in the 2004 election.

Texas and national Democrats used a variety of tactics to thwart the Republican effort, ranging from legislators twice fleeing the state to rob the GOP of a quorum, to repeated legal appeals, all of which failed to stop the plan from going into effect for the 2004 elections.

Some Democratic strategists are still holding out hope that the courts will overturn the plan, which the Supreme Court remanded to a three-judge federal panel in October. At the center of Democrats’ complaint is that the map was drawn solely for political purposes.

The specter of Texas looms large over House Democrats, many of whom are determined to not simply sit back and depend on the legal process to invalidate the Georgia plan.

“Texas was the first time we had gone through it,” said one senior House Democratic aide. “We thought we could stop it. We were wrong. That mistake will not happen again.”

With its 19 House seats, Illinois appears to be the state with the biggest potential for re-redistricting gains by Democrats.

When the lines were initially drawn in 2001, it was the result of a bipartisan compromise in the state Legislature, which at the time had split control; Republicans had a majority in the state Senate and Democrats had a majority in the state House. The governor was a Republican.

The plan, which had to account for the state’s loss of a seat in reapportionment, aimed to protect incumbents of both parties; the casualty was Democratic Rep. David Phelps who was forced into a Member versus Member race against Rep. John Shimkus (R) in a southern Illinois district that favored the GOP.

In the 2002 election, Blagojevich won the governor’s race and Democrats reclaimed the state Senate, giving them full control for the first time since 1977.

Many party strategists believe that given the state’s growing Democratic dominance — Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry carried Illinois by 10 points in the 2004 presidential election — the fact that Republicans hold nine of the 19 seats is a correctable anomaly.

Democrats believe that a re-opening of the Illinois lines could yield at least two seats; one could be carved out of the suburbs surrounding Chicago, which are currently represented entirely by Republicans including House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Another gain could come in southern Illinois in areas Phelps represented prior to the redistricting of 2001. Much of the territory Shimkus now represents was held by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin during his fourteen years in the House.

When asked whether Illinois Democrats should entertain the possibility of redrawing the state’s districts, Durbin said: “Talk to [DCCC Chairman] Rahm Emanuel [D-Ill.].”

Emanuel had no comment Friday about the possibility.

In New Mexico, a new round of redistricting would be aimed at unseating Rep. Heather Wilson (R), a feat Democrats have been unable to accomplish at the ballot box since she won a special election in June 1998.

Wilson’s Albuquerque-based 1st district is almost evenly divided along party lines and even the slightest addition of Democrats from Rep. Tom Udall’s (D) northern New Mexico 3rd district could tilt the balance away from the Republican Member.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is also pushing for a mid-decade redistricting in his state, but his effort is billed as being above partisan politics. He wants a bipartisan panel of retired judges to redraw Congressional and legislative lines before the 2006 elections, though if he succeeds it is not expected to dramatically alter the partisan balance of California’s House delegation.

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.

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