ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota’s shifting population, reflected in new census figures, could spell difficulty for statehouse Democrats in the next election — and some fear the looming changes could influence policy debates well before then.
The Democratic Party’s big-city political power bases are likely to weaken when new district lines are drawn at the same time that GOP-friendly seats in the suburbs and outlying towns are growing.
The GOP-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton are aiming for a compromise, but a court case has already begun.
Hamline University political science professor Joe Peschek said the census figures made for a “one-two whammy” for Democrats.
“They got shellacked in an election in a way I wasn’t expecting and this is more bad news,” Peschek said.
While official population numbers released Wednesday added a new facet to the debate, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers were reluctant Thursday to offer political appraisals. Some said they were waiting on color-coded maps to help them visualize the population shifts by district.
“I haven’t looked at the numbers enough to know that,” said Rep. Melissa Hortman, a Democrat on the House Redistricting Committee. “I don’t have an R vs. D take on the numbers.”
Republicans deviated little from their refrain that they were determined to keep the process fair.
According to an Associated Press analysis of census data, 30 of the Senate’s 34 Democrats represent districts that must pick up residents to get to an ideal size while most current Republican senators would see their districts shrink geographically.
The bulkiest districts — those more than 10 percent above the goal population size — all presently have GOP senators. Many of them abut, and that means spinoff opportunities in staunch GOP areas.
Republicans also dominate the House districts that need to slim down by 10 percent of their population, holding all but two of the 25 in that category. Like the Senate, the heaviest House districts are largely adjacent to one another in GOP strongholds.
Democrats represent more districts that will grow in geographic size to gain population. All but one of the districts encompassing Minneapolis and St. Paul are below their needed head count, meaning a possible loss of a seat or more after the mapmaking shakes out.
Those figures don’t guarantee that Republicans will keep the narrow majorities they captured last November; the GOP has a three-seat cushion in the Senate and a four-seat edge in the House. Presidential election years — 2012 is one of them — typically bring higher voter turnout that can flip outcomes down the ballot.
When Democrats were in charge before, they were able to win seats in the suburbs. That’s where the playing field is expected to be concentrated in two years.
The redistricting process will play out as Dayton and lawmakers attempt to solve a $5 billion budget deficit. Dayton and statehouse Republicans differ greatly on the approach, with the governor advocating tax increases that the GOP majorities firmly oppose.
Hamline’s Peschek said Republicans “might feel they have some wind in their sails” given population trends, a mood that could spill into the budget debate.
“It’s possible this report will give Republicans a sense that they have momentum in terms of their future strength,” Peschek said. “That might embolden them given that they already made strong gains in the 2010 elections to be firmer in the budget battle with the DFL and Governor Dayton.”
Rep. Mary Murphy, the lead Democrat on the House Redistricting Committee, said the byplay between redistricting and the budget debate “has crossed my mind” but she’s hopeful they won’t overlap.
Fellow committee member Rep. Joe Hoppe said he and other Republicans plan to stand firm about fixing the deficit almost exclusively by reducing spending regardless of what the next political map brings.
“We have a lot of people who say `We don’t care if we get re-elected,”‘ Hoppe said. “We just want to do what’s right. That’s what we ran on. That’s what we’re talking about.”
Beyond the Legislature, the redistricting process carries other intrigue, such as how Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann’s 6th Congressional District gets reconfigured to move almost 100,000 people out of her fast-moving district into another. Bachmann lives on the eastern edge of a district that stretches from the Wisconsin border past St. Cloud.
Rep. John Kline, a Republican, represents a southern suburban district that must shrink by nearly 70,000 people.
The rest of Minnesota’s eight districts must gain residents in the process, from as little as 2,000 in GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack’s 8th District in northern Minnesota to 48,000 in Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum’s St. Paul-area 4th District.
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