President Reagan’s increased efforts to elect Republicans to Congress grows out of his concern over Democratic “gerrymandering” of congressional districts around the country, the White House chief of staff said Thursday.
Kenneth M. Duberstein said Republicans have lost 20 to 25 seats because Democratic-controlled state governments drew congressional district lines favoring Democrats after the 1980 census. Duberstein outlined a strategy by which Reagan will try to help win back the seats and avoid losing more after the apportionment following the 1990 census.
Under the plan, Reagan will campaign not only for congressmen and senators but also for Republicans in state legislatures who will “encourage fair apportionment,” Duberstein told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
Duberstein’s comments, including an outline of Reagan’s plans for his final months in office and beyond, presage a bitter battle over reapportionment after the 1990 census.
Signaling a strong Reagan role in pressing a variety of issues after the election and after his retirement, Duberstein declared: “Clearly, Ronald Reagan continues to dominate the U.S. scene, the world scene and Capitol Hill.”
But Democrats scoffed at Reagan’s ability to shift the balance in the U.S. Congress, where Democrats hold a 54-46 advantage in the Senate and outnumber Republicans 255 to 177 in the House.
Republicans won the Senate in 1980 amid a Reagan landslide but lost it in 1986, despite having Reagan in the White House. In addition, said Peggy Connolly, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, “the Reagan era never resulted in a realignment of the House.”
Anita Dunn, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Reagan’s “personal popularity has not translated to candidates.”
Nevertheless, Duberstein said, the President will continue working to “increase Republican representation in the Senate, perhaps to a majority, and pick up additional seats in the House.”
But Connolly said that of 17 Democratic incumbent congressmen running for reelection from Texas, 12 do not even have GOP opponents. In California, she said, three do not have GOP challengers.
“Republicans ought to be kicking themselves that they didn’t put credible challengers on the ballots,” she said, adding that perhaps many were “frightened off” by the Reagan Administration scandal involving arms sales to Iran, with profits diverted to the Contras in Nicaragua.
California could gain as many as five congressional seats as the population shifts to the South and West, Duberstein estimated. “So control of the state Legislature will be essential to ensuring that the new congressional districts are fairly drawn,” he said.
Duberstein noted that Republicans need only five additional seats in either the California Assembly or Senate to win control of one of the chambers, thus putting a Republican stamp on the apportionment process.
“The situation will be much the same in many other states,” he said, asserting that a swing of two seats in the Illinois Senate and Pennsylvania House would accomplish GOP takeovers in those states.
By Duberstein’s calculation, if the GOP picks up “70 key seats in state legislatures across the country” the party would control the majority of the legislative chambers in the country.
Democrats dismissed the likelihood of such a scenario and said Reagan would have little impact on these races because voters base their decisions on local issues.
And even Republicans were unwilling to predict a takeover of the Senate or the House. In California, one state GOP official said, “we’d be happy to make gains” in the state’s congressional delegation, which includes 27 Democrats and 18 Republicans, but he claimed the “gerrymander does stack the deck in favor of Democrats.”
In addition to trying to influence the reapportionment process, Reagan will hit the “mashed-potato circuit” after leaving office to campaign for the line-item veto, a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution and a repeal of the constitutional amendment that prohibits a President from serving more than two terms. The change would not affect Reagan.
“There are a lot of things that he feels that have not yet been accomplished,” Duberstein said. “I think you’re going to see a very active Ronald Reagan . . . continuing to speak out for the principles that he’s espoused for so many years.”