Plans to redistrict may hurt state GOP Some fear counties could be moved to create Democratic majority in 2nd

Jake Stump Daily Mail Capitol Reporter
January 5, 2009

As eight states prepare to lose congressional seats in 2010, West Virginia should keep its three representatives on Capitol Hill, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.

But the boundaries of the districts could be redrawn by the 2012 election because of population shifts across the state.

Some Republicans are expressing concern that a Democratic-controlled Legislature could redraw the congressional districts in a partisan fashion to benefit Democratic candidates.

In 2001, legislators actually bolstered the 2nd District for Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito by moving Gilmer County into the 1st District and Nicholas County into the 3rd District. Both of those counties lean Democratic.

Redistricting in 2011 may not be as kind to Republicans if the Legislature wants to strengthen Democratic hopes in the 2nd District by way of gerrymandering.

Robert Rupp, a political scientist at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said lawmakers may remove a Republican county from the 2nd District and add a few counties overall to the 3rd District, which is declining in population.

"I anticipate more movement in 2011 than 2001," Rupp said. "They'll do more than move two counties. We could speculate they could be moving a Republican county out (of the 2nd) and gerrymander that.

"They'll have to add more to the 3rd District because of the shift."

Capito is the state's only Republican member of Congress. Her district, which stretches from the Eastern Panhandle westward to the Ohio River border with Ohio, is considered more conservative than the rest of the state. Its population as of the last major census, in 2000, was 602,243.

Capito spokesman Jonathan Coffin said the congresswoman hopes any redistricting efforts would be conducted in a cooperative, impartial style.

"Any redistricting down the road should be done in the most fair and nonpartisan manner," Coffin said. "It shouldn't include any political gamesmanship."

Coffin said Capito would deal with any district adjustments when the time comes. For now, she is more concerned with the duties at hand and representing the 18 counties now in her district, he said.

She has held the seat since 2001. In the 2008 general election, she won every county in her district except for Braxton and Jefferson counties.

Gary Abernathy, executive director for the state GOP, said he wasn't worried about how the Legislature might redraw the lines in a couple of years.

No matter how they reconfigure the districts, Capito, assuming she's still running, will continue to retain her seat, Abernathy said.

"They can't do anything to help them defeat Shelley Moore Capito," he said. "Frankly, she'd win if she ran in the 1st, 2nd or 3rd District. But when there's only three districts to draw, there's only so much gerrymandering they can do to help their party."

Abernathy said he believes lawmakers instead will strengthen their Democratic grip on the 1st and 3rd districts.

The current officeholder for the 1st District is Democratic Congressman Alan Mollohan, who has held that seat since 1983. The 1st District is located in the northern part of the state and includes Clarksburg, Fairmont, Morgantown, Parkersburg and Wheeling. The district's population was 602,545, as of 2000.

Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall has represented the 3rd District since 1976. It was the 4th District before West Virginia lost a seat after the 1990 Census.

The 3rd District is in the southern part of the state and includes the cities of Huntington, Bluefield, Princeton and Beckley. Its population was 602,556 in 2000, but recent projections show the district losing residents.

The Legislature redraws districts every 10 years. Usually, lawmakers divide the districts equally by population. For instance, each district, as of the last redrawing, had a population of about 602,000.

Overall, the Mountain State actually gained population in the past year and that should prevent it from losing a seat this time around.

Based on the latest Census estimates, West Virginia has 6,100 more residents than it did in April 2000. Its total population is 1,814,468, as of July 1, 2008.

West Virginia's population would need to decline by 80,000 residents for the state to lose a seat, according to Election Data Services, a Washington, D.C. consulting firm.

A recent report by Election Data Services concludes that Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania will lose seats for 2010.

The last time West Virginia lost a seat was in 1991 because of a population decline. Democrat Harley Staggers Jr. had represented the 2nd District from 1983 to 1993. The district was then split up among the remaining three districts, and two Democratic incumbents, Staggers and Mollohan, were pitted against one another, with Mollohan emerging victorious.

West Virginia's representation has dwindled since the mid-20th century. The state had six House members before the 1960s, when one seat was eliminated. West Virginia lost another seat following the 1970 census.

In that instance, two Democratic incumbents also faced off. Rep. Ken Hechler defeated James Kee in 1972.