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Loss of House seats, and clout, looming in Midwest

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CHICAGO » Whatever the outcome of the fall elections, one political loser this year seems certain: the Midwest.

State population tallies are expected to show that in the coming reapportionment of Congress, seats will be lost across this region — in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and perhaps, experts say, Minnesota or Missouri. The numbers are to be revealed at the end of December.

"When you think about losing six seats this time around," said Tom Gillaspy, the state demographer of Minnesota, "that’s stark."

Minnesota is one of 12 Midwestern states that together commanded 143 congressional seats a century ago. That number is predicted to shrink to 94.

Already, the worry about vanishing seats is stirring partisan tensions as the question looms: Whose seat will be spared and whose will be erased? State officials have begun considering their task of redrawing congressional districts in the coming year. But in states expected to lose a seat, the prospect of a new map (and, potentially, the demise of someone’s political career) has drawn extra notice — and a role in some midterm campaigns.

In Illinois, which is expected to lose one of its 19 congressional seats, John J. Cullerton, the State Senate president, sent letters this month to fellow Democrats in Congress reminding them, he said, that helping to elect a Democratic governor in November would be key to keeping their voices (and seats) in Washington. As in most states, state lawmakers and the governor here have a central role in deciding district boundaries.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, who hope to seize the governorship and legislative seats in this Democratic-controlled state, have been offering comparable reminders about the coming redistricting, at event after event, before their largest donors.

"For the people who write checks, this is a huge motivator," said Pat Brady, the state’s Republican chairman. "They understand that it is crucial."

Amid fiercely competitive campaigns in Minnesota, too, Republicans have been warning that state Democrats — if they hold onto both chambers of the State Legislature and win away the governor’s mansion — are quietly scheming to delete the district of Rep. Michele Bachmann, a conservative Republican who started a Tea Party caucus on Capitol Hill. Bachmann is known for her outspoken, unflinching (and often televised) remarks on abortion, health care, big spending and big government.

"They will do it to Bachmann and whoever else they can," Michael Brodkorb, the deputy state Republican chairman, said last week. "The Democrats will absolutely attempt to do that."

Not so, Brian Melendez, the chairman of Minnesota’s version of the Democratic Party, known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, says; the party wants to defeat Bachmann but not by redrawing her out of existence.

Fear of diminishing political clout for the region cuts across party lines, even amid the partisan positioning. Leaders worry that issues like protecting the Great Lakes, providing winter heat assistance for struggling families, and cleaning up old industrial sites will eventually be pushed aside, overtaken by the expanding Sun Belt’s clout and its unique worries. They fret about less influence in future presidential elections; fewer congressional seats means fewer electoral votes. And, at its simplest level, these leaders worry that fewer federal dollars will find their way to the nation’s middle.

The Midwest has long watched — and worried about — the diluting of its political power in Washington thanks to shifts in the nation’s population. A region that once held about one-third of the nation’s House seats, it has lost them in every decade since 1920. By the time a new Congress arrives in 2013, the Midwest is expected to hold a little more than one-fifth of the seats, according to an analysis by Eric J. Ostermeier of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. (That compares to estimates of 24.4 percent of seats held by the West, 35.9 by the South and 18.2 percent by the Northeast).

In a way, Midwestern leaders say, there is little they can do. The allotment of congressional seats is based on census counts of the states, and the population has, over decades, grown in the West and South, to the relative misery of the East Coast and Midwest. This year, Midwestern states went to great lengths to secure some of the highest participation rates in filling out census forms, but that was apparently not enough to affect the larger trend.

A final 2010 population count of each state will be presented to President Barack Obama on Dec. 31, and until then any predictions about congressional seats lost and gained are based on census data from 2009 and demographic data from private companies. Particularly because of the nation’s economic and housing turmoil and because earlier data does not include deployed members of the military, experts say, some of the early predictions may prove to be wrong this time around; as late as Sunday, Election Data Services, a company that analyzes such trends, issued slightly revised predictions: that Missouri (and not Minnesota) might lose a seat and that New York might lose two (not just one) while Florida might gain two.

"The economic upheaval makes this exercise more unpredictable than it’s ever been," said Tim Storey, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures, who was over the weekend conducting a training seminar in Providence, R.I., for 250 state lawmakers from around the country on drawing new maps and, if need be, shrinking the number of House districts.

Still, some of the broad trends are clear, the experts say. The expected winners: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Washington. The likely losers: Louisiana; East Coast states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania; and a chunk across the Midwest. (Ohio, in fact, is predicted by two analysts to lose two House seats.)

"This is all going to be pretty painful," said J. Thomas Wolfe, executive director of the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a group that was formed in the mid-1970s when it became clear that other regions were growing in size — and political influence.

So the cold-weather manufacturing states teamed up, its leaders creating the institute and coalitions in the Senate and the House, which press for the causes of 18 states from Maine to Iowa.

For the moment, the Midwest may have some benefits overlooked in any new census figures or House count: a president from here and, for a chunk of Midwestern states, crucial status as battlegrounds in presidential election fights. Still, the signs are worrisome, Wolfe said. At its creation, the Northeast-Midwest House group included 218 seats; that number has shrunk to 174 and more will likely go lower in 2012.

"The benefit of trying to work things through a caucus or a coalition is hard," Wolfe said, "if the coalition is ebbing away."


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