WASHINGTON — The drawing of new congressional district lines for the 1992 elections could produce as many as 100 hotly contested races for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the head of a Democratic task force on reapportionment said Thursday.
Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) forecast a major struggle between Democrats and Republicans for control of the House in the wake of population changes that will benefit California and other Sun Belt states while hurting the Northeast and Midwest.
"This is going to be a massive showdown," Fazio said at a luncheon sponsored by the Center for National Policy, a Washington research organization.
In a normal election year, only 25 to 30 of the 435 House seats are regarded as competitive matchups. In the other races, incumbents are too entrenched to be unseated or the voter composition of the district makes it "safe" for either a Democratic or Republican candidate.
In 1992, however, new district lines will be drawn in at least 21 states that will gain or lose representation in the House as a result of the 1990 census.
"We're going to have 100 seats up for election either without an incumbent or a high degree of marginality," Fazio said. A congressional district is considered marginal if the winner gets less than 55% of the vote.
Republican Party officials, he said, have been hoping to concentrate their resources on winning a majority in the House in 1992. Democrats have controlled the House since 1954.
Fazio, who heads the Democrats' redistricting committee, known as IMPAC 2000, said that his party would have to defend its gains from an all-out GOP assault two years from now.
Although the Democrats are in good position to influence the redistricting process in most states, he said, the overall outcome is impossible to predict because many of the political struggles may wind up in the courts.
California, with 45 members, now has the largest House delegation, and it is expected to get an additional seven seats as a result of population increases since the 1980 census. Many, if not most, of the state's 52 congressional districts may have new borders, Fazio said, and some incumbents may decide to retire rather than campaign in unfamiliar territory.
Reapportionment in California is certain to be complicated by the fact that the state just elected a Republican governor, Sen. Pete Wilson, but both houses of the Legislature are controlled by the Democrats, Fazio said.
Even so, he said, Democrats would prefer a compromise rather than a partisan struggle over drawing district lines.
However, some Republicans have said that they are determined to get political revenge for the redistricting pushed through by the late Rep. Phil Burton (D-San Francisco) after the 1980 census. GOP leaders said that the Burton plan gave the Democrats an unfair advantage in congressional races.
As a result of Tuesday's elections, California's congressional delegation comprises 26 Democrats and 19 Republicans. Fazio said that some "fire-eating Republicans" want to reduce the Democratic total to 20 through the redistricting process.
If California Democrats cannot reach an agreement with Wilson, Fazio said, the reapportionment fight probably will go to the courts.