Salena Zito

Pennsylvania’s congressional, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races are without question the bellwether for this fall’s midterm elections. Yet the results of state legislative races will impact the state’s political future more than the other races combined.

That’s because politics’ favorite cyclical math equation (aside from figuring how to count super delegates) is gerrymandering, and it is back to add to the drama until the 2012 presidential election – as if politics needs any more high drama.

Thanks to sluggish population growth, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Pennsylvania will lose at least one congressional district when redistricting lines are drawn next year.

The state legislature controls that process, so the nation will focus on who wins control of the state house.

Sean Hannity FREE

Political academics Isaac Wood and Lara Brown both see Pennsylvania receiving more state legislative attention (and outside cash) than most states, “because the party balance is so close to equal and the course of redistricting will be changed by who holds control of the chamber,” explains University of Virginia’s Wood.

Democrats hold a 104-99 margin over Republicans in the state House.

The party that controls gerrymandering can use three weapons: “packing” (concentrating a group of voters, such as blacks, into one district), “cracking” (diluting a strong majority), and “pairing” (forcing two incumbents into the same district).

The word "gerrymander" comes from a partisan redistricting map drawn by former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812 in order to help the Democratic-Republicans – Thomas Jefferson's party – enter into what traditionally was a state run by the Federalist party of native-son John Adams.

Brown, of Villanova University, says that in recent decades incumbents and their parties have engaged in more "packing" to secure the seats they already hold and to concentrate the competition into a few districts that they then try to "crack."

“That is because it is cheaper to wage an all-out war in a few places than it is to compete all over the state, and have to buy all of that media,” Brown explains.

In 2002, Republicans, especially those in Pennsylvania, were proud of the gerrymandered maps they produced. The state lost two congressional seats that year, thanks to population dips and reapportionment, dropping from 21 to 19 districts.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.