News analysis: GOP may get more seats in Congress

Utah 1 of 5 states that could add to delegation

Published: Monday, April 20 2009 12:11 a.m. MDT

It's pretty clear that Utah will get another seat in the U.S. House, either next year through special legislation or in 2012 after the 2010 Census.

But to which major political party will that seat go?

And which other states will either gain seats or lose them through redistricting?

A new analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that Republicans are likely to pick up most of the new seats created.

But with Democrats currently holding a 75-plus seat majority in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives, it will take more than redistricting to get the GOP back in control of the body in 2012.

"Still, it is a first bright spot for (national) Republicans," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Utah GOP legislative leaders say there will not be an attempt to redraw the current four-seat congressional plan here before the 2011 formal redistricting process, should Utah get a fourth seat in 2010 through legislation.

Under the Utah Constitution, the Legislature draws the boundaries for the Utah House (now with 75 members), the Utah Senate (now with 29 members) and the U.S. House seats in the Beehive State.

When it looked like Utah might get a fourth seat several years ago, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. called the Utah Legislature into special session and a current four-seat U.S. House plan was adopted.

That plan carved out a fairly safe Democratic seat for sitting Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, in the northern half of Salt Lake County and in Summit County.

And it created a new seat — probably Republican in nature — in southern Salt Lake County, the dividing line being roughly 7000 South, and including Tooele, Juab, Beaver, Iron and Washington counties.

There is currently a bill in Congress, being held up over a fight about gun-control laws for the District of Columbia, that would give Utah a fourth seat now and give Washington, D.C., one voting U.S. House member.

So Utah could get a fourth seat before the 2010 Census numbers provide one in 2012.

The NCSL predicts that based on census updates, Texas could get three new House seats after the 2010 count, and Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Florida could all get one additional seat.

The conference predicted the loss of one seat each by Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Louisiana.

While Nevada has been voting Democratic recently, and its legislature is Democratic-controlled, the other states gaining seats tend to be Republican — and Republicans control those state legislatures, where redistricting will take place.

Thus, at least now, it looks like Republicans would be well-situated to gain new House seats through redistricting.

What pressures could be brought to bear in Utah to redistrict this state's four U.S. House seats to cut out Matheson and make the state's congressional delegation all Republican — as it was in the late 1990s?

"I think Utah GOP leadership would be fine with Matheson being in the U.S. House for as long as he likes — he's so popular," said Jowers, who heads Huntsman's special committee studying Utah's political systems with an eye to getting more Utahns voting.

"What they don't want is Matheson running for the U.S. Senate or for governor."

Huntsman has already suggested that an independent commission make redistricting recommendations to the Legislature, something not welcomed by Utah GOP leaders who want to redraw their own districts in 2011.

One example of "redistricting reform gone bad," said Jowers, is in Salt Lake County government. The County Council set up a citizen redistricting commission for its own seats, but, said Jowers, council members then appointed individuals to that commission who will look out for council members politically. "It's difficult to get true redistricting reform unless the incumbents really get out of the process," said Jowers.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com

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