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Why State-Level Online Politics Really Matters in 2010

BY Colin Delany | Sunday, August 23 2009

Cross-posted on e.politics

Plenty of people are already looking ahead to the outcome of the 2010 elections, in particular what happens to the Democrats' control of Congress. The party of an incumbent President almost always loses seats in Washington in an off-year election, and with the Dems having just enough votes to stop a filibuster in the Senate, Republicans have a powerful incentive to stall Barack Obama's agenda as long as possible: they know full well that these few months are likely the high point of his influence in his (presumably) first term.

But if you really want to see a shift in power in Washington for the next decade or longer, pay attention to who wins the STATE legislatures next November. The state representatives and state senators elected 15 months from now will preside over the rawest political act in America: the redrawing of congressional and legislative district lines based on the results of the decennial census. Redistricting is legislative sausage-making at its finest, with members jockeying to preserve or extend their own power-bases at the expense of enemies. In the process, they usually try to forward the overall interests of their particular party or faction as best they can.

The results can be ludicrous at times (at least one member of Congress is reputed to hold her seat because her colleagues in the state senate so despised her that they happily tailored a Congressional district to her needs -- to get rid of her), but they can also be flat-out obscene. Redistricting in the early 1990s was bad enough, with certain Democratic urban legislators teaming up with suburban Republicans to sketch sprawling monsters linking scattered pockets of (presumably) like-minded voters, in the process often creating a slew of safe Republican districts enveloping a handful of others packed to the gills with minority and other reliably Democratic voters.

Those early efforts were the first to benefit from database modeling of proposed districts down to block level, and even though new plans often took hours or even days to run through the mainframe, the practical political results were impressive at the time. But compared with what Tom DeLay achieved in Texas in 2003, they were strictly amateur. Pushing the new Republican leadership of the Texas Legislature to RE-redistrict for the 2004 elections (even though they were only in power because of lines newly drawn in 2001), he managed to eliminate enough incumbent Democrats in Congress to shift the state's delegation in Washington from rough parity to a 21-11 Republican advantage. By contrast, Texas voters split about 55-45 Republican overall in 2004 -- hooray for democracy!

If I sound cynical about the redistricting process, I have a right: my first substantive political experience was working for a member of the Texas House of Representatives during a special session devoted to redrawing those precious political lines in 1992, during which at one point I quite literally walked into a smoke-filled room. Right out of college and drenched (not wet) behind the ears, I glimpsed a world I didn't really understand -- but watching the rubber meet the road of politics was a most enlightening experience all around.

Redistricting can be ugly regardless of which party is in charge, but it's also going to happen, regardless of which party is in charge. So if you really want to influence the political course of this country over the next decade (at least), you have the chance -- if you work to elect state legislators whose views align with yours, and if you get started NOW.

For starters, individual donors, volunteers and voices can often have a much larger effect on a local race like one for state representative than they can on a state-level or national election. Legislative races may be more expensive than they were 20 years ago, but they still run on a much smaller scale and usually with much less money to spend on television. Consequently, individual donations matter more, as do individual endorsements and individual volunteer hours. So does direct voter-to-voter outreach -- with fewer messages filling the airwaves, the contents of an email from a friend may be the only thing someone remembers when he or she goes to vote.

But WHEN you help matters as much as HOW you help, since time and money spent early in the campaign process usually pay off disproportionately -- donating 10 hours a week NOW will probably help a candidate much more than donating 10 hours during the week right before the election. Plus, the primary elections are all-important across much of the country, again in part because of gerrymandering, and they'll start up next Spring. So get cracking! If you want to see a particular brand of congressmember populate Washington, now's your chance -- provided that you're willing to put in the time and/or the money.

Let's explore the implications of this idea for online politics a little further, in a couple of upcoming articles.