WASHINGTON -- While many voters are focused on the presidential election and the battle for control of Congress next year, a third competition could have even more lasting influence over federal policy.
Party control in a dozen or more state legislatures will be up for grabs in the 2000 elections. The stakes are especially high because the winners will draw the congressional districts that will remain for the next decade.
A party shift of a few state legislative seats in the right places around the country could have a disproportionately large effect on the makeup of Congress. The new congressional districts that will be drawn for 2002 could, in effect, undo the results of next year's election, when Democrats think they have a good chance to win back the House of Representatives.
"We know that what happens in 2001 and 2002 could overturn what happens in 2000," said Rep. Ken Bentsen, a Texas Democrat who is leading his party's drive to gain influence over the redistricting process. "If it's not handled properly, it could cost us our majority."
Republican strategists agree that gaining control over redistricting is vital to each party's long-term interests.
The Republicans, clinging to a slender House majority of five seats, fear they may lose the House by a narrow margin next year. But like the Democrats, Republicans see that election as perhaps only a skirmish before the congressional contest of 2002, when the pattern for the next decade could be set.
And winning control of the House in 2002 probably requires scoring big in the state legislative contests next year.
"As far as the future of both parties is concerned, the real battle is over the legislatures: I call it the hidden election of 2000," said Thomas B. Hofeller, the redistricting director for the Republican National Committee.
"Most people think that redistricting doesn't begin until 2001," Hofeller added. "But when you wake up the day after Election Day 2000, what you see is what you get. It can't be fixed."
To be sure, many factors can affect the outcome of congressional elections, particularly the popularity of the president or presidential candidates. Republicans credit a backlash against President Clinton for the Republican victory in 1994 that gave them control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades.
But that victory might not have been possible had the Republicans not been gaining strength at the state level through redistricting and party-building activities, such as candidate recruitment.
Thus, the new president will likely have less influence on the makeup of the midterm Congress than will the shape of the districts from which the candidates run.
So critical is the remapping process that Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, head of the national committee that raises money for Republican congressional races, channeled $650,000 into legislative races in his home state of Virginia this year. Davis also poured in $350,000 that he raised on his own.
The result was a net gain for the Republicans of three seats in the Virginia House, enough to give them control of that chamber -- and of the Virginia General Assembly -- for the first time.
"A million dollars for three seats is pretty expensive," Davis said. "But it's worth it because now we control the redistricting process."
The redrawing of congressional and state legislative districts is a high-stakes political exercise that occurs at the beginning of each decade. It reflects population changes as recorded by the latest census.
In broad terms, seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned by dividing the population by the total of 435 seats. But the process is more complex than that because each state -- no matter how small -- must have at least one representative, and congressional districts may not overlap state lines.
The Census Bureau applies mathematical formulas to determine how many seats to allocate to each state. An announcement is due in April 2001.
Based on estimates by both parties, a shift of at least 10 seats among 15 states is expected. Continuing a demographic trend under way for a few decades, gains are likely to come in the South and West at the expense of the Northeast and Midwest. Big winners probably will include Texas and Arizona. New York and Pennsylvania are among likely losers.
Regional shifts alone can make a difference in the party breakdown in the House. But an equally crucial factor is how the congressional district lines are drawn in each state. The inclusion or exclusion of solidly Democratic or Republican communities can mean the difference between a safe district for one party and a marginal district that swings easily from one to the other.
Redistricting procedures vary among states. Typically, the maps for congressional and legislative districts must be approved by both houses of the state legislature. In some states, governors have veto power.