The intensive comings and goings at Washington's staid old University Club earlier this month might well have caused unease among the security detail next door at the Soviet Embassy.
In fact, a plot of sorts was being hatched behind the club's brick walls, where nonstop brainstorming went on for the better part of two days. But the scheme was not aimed at the Kremlin. Rather, the 30 or so top-level Republican strategists who gathered in a second-floor meeting room were drafting a battle plan for the 1990 election and the rest of the decade.
"We wanted to be somewhere where we could easily be bugged," Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, planner of the get-together, quipped about the proximity to the embassy.
But no one was joking about the ultimate goal of the session: to overturn Democratic Party dominance of Congress and statehouses and clear the way for a partisan realignment that would at last make the GOP the nation's majority party.
Republicans have been chasing this realignment dream for nearly two decades. But as they look toward the 1990 elections, they realize that they now face what Lee Atwater, President Bush's choice as new party chairman, describes as "a historic opportunity."
To some analysts, it appears that this election presents the Republicans with their best remaining chance before the end of the century to move ahead of the Democrats, who the polls show still hold an advantage in party identification.
That is because the 1990 vote for state and local offices will decide which party is better positioned to take advantage of the population shifts from Frost Belt to Sun Belt that will be recorded in that year's census. These anticipated changes could have profound political consequences, particularly for the balance of power in the House of Representatives, where the Democrats have exercised almost unbroken control for more than half a century.
Another factor energizing the Republican preparations for 1990 is the outlook and background of the new man in the Oval Office. As a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, President Bush, unlike his predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, makes no pretense of being nonpolitical.
Bush campaigned in 47 states in the 1986 midterm election, notes White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater: "I bet you dollars to doughnuts he'll be a very active participant in the (1990) off-year elections."
Of course, the Democrats do not plan on being passive themselves in the 1990 campaign. The long-range stakes are high for both parties as each tries to extend its reach in the present split-level political system, where the Republicans dominate the presidency and the Democrats appear to hold an edge at almost every other level.
"We've got to start putting together a coalition of states which will enable us to win the White House in 1992," says Tim Dickson, executive director of Project 500, a Democratic campaign group that has been planning for the 1990 shoot-out for five years.
Both parties are gearing up for a multimillion-dollar, no-holds-barred fight over the drafting of new congressional district lines based on the 1990 census, particularly in states that will gain or lose House seats.
On the face of it, the change should benefit the GOP. About 18 seats are expected to shift from Frost Belt states, where Democrats are relatively strong, to the Sun Belt, where Republicans by and large have been on top.
But Republicans are still smarting from Democratic gerrymandering after the 1980 census, particularly in California, where they claim to have been redistricted out of five House seats. They are determined not to be undone again in the next decade.
"Thirty years of gerrymandering by the Democrats has nearly locked in Democratic majority control, with a capital 'D,' of the U.S. House of Representatives," Atwater told national committee members last month. "If we want to be the majority party in Congress, we must have a very strong Republican role in drawing new district lines after the census."
But even many Republicans have begun to realize that rigging district lines is only part of their problem and redrawing them only part of the solution. This was evidenced at the strategy session at the University Club.
"There was the first recognition I've heard at a Republican meeting that even if we won all the gerrymandering issues before legislatures, it would not result in Republican control of Congress," says one participant, New Right leader Paul Weyrich.
Influential GOP consultant Eddie Mahe, who also attended the University Club strategy session, notes that Republicans have elected fewer senators and governors than Democrats, though in neither case are elections influenced by the shape or size of election districts.
It is not gerrymandering but perception, says Mahe, that is responsible for Republicans' failure to match their presidential successes in congressional and state elections. Opinion polls show that Americans today, as they have since the Great Depression, regard the GOP as the party of the overdog.
"People are quite willing to let us be President," says Mahe. "But they don't want us to be in charge of anything that directly affects their personal lives."
Atwater acknowledges the need for a change of message at the local level and speaks of "a new consensus developing in our party," fostered by the policies of President Bush, that accepts the need for "a role for government" in helping solve certain problems.
"I do think Republicans can be conservative on fiscal issues, fairly conservative on some social issues but progressive on issues like environment and education," Atwater says.
One of the ideas discussed at the University Club meeting for helping the GOP broaden its appeal was to help promote a Republican as a "reform candidate" in the 1990 campaign for mayor of the District of Columbia. Democratic Mayor Marion Barry has been plagued by an epidemic of violent crime and persistent allegations of personal misbehavior.
The chances that any GOP candidate could win in the overwhelmingly Democratic city are next to nil. But proponents of the idea contend that a mayoralty campaign in the capital, with the national press corps watching, would provide a high-visibility opportunity to demonstrate Republican concern with drugs, crime, corruption and other urban problems.
Other reforms discussed at the University Club meeting included changing campaign finance laws to deprive House incumbents, most of them Democrats, with what Republicans complain are nearly insurmountable advantages in running for office.
One scheme, advanced by Republican Rep. Jon Kyl of Arizona, seems to adopt the approach of "if you can't lick 'em, buy 'em off."
Kyl advocated repealing the House rule that allows members elected before 1980 to put campaign funds to personal use when they leave Congress. His proposal would allow members one last chance to exercise that privilege--if they decided not to seek reelection in 1990.
The provision would affect 191 present members, 126 of them Democrats with average campaign surpluses of more than $200,000. Kyl's idea is similar to a plan that House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) intended to propose if Congress had not voted down a pay raise for itself.
Republicans have a long way to go if they are going to overcome the present Democratic advantage at the congressional, state and local levels.
After Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory, Republicans controlled the Senate and trailed Democrats in the House by only 50 seats. Now the Democrats run the Senate and have expanded their House majority to 85 seats.
Back then, the Republicans held 23 governorships, to 27 for the Democrats. Now the score is 22 to 28.
In 1981 the Republicans controlled both houses of the legislatures in 14 states and the Democrats controlled 29, with six other legislatures split between the parties. Now Republicans control both houses in only eight states, to 28 for the Democrats. (Nebraska has a one-house, nonpartisan Legislature.)
Control of the governorships and the state legislatures looms as particularly important with the redistricting year of 1991 approaching.
Studies by Bruce Cain of Caltech and other specialists have shown that each political party usually needs to control the triad of political power--the governorship and both houses of the Legislature--to dictate the outcome of redistricting. Conversely, each party can generally assume that by controlling at least one leg of the triad, it can check the other party from exercising its will.
"As long as we can win a governorship in some of those big states, we can keep from getting raped," says GOP strategist Mahe.
The federal courts offer another potential check against partisan abuse by one party or the other.
Republican hopes for such help rose after the Supreme Court held in a 1986 case that extreme gerrymandering can be unconstitutional--if it "consistently degrades" the representation of a political party. But those hopes have fallen because the court has yet to find a case in which the gerrymandering was extreme enough to meet its standard.
Battles in Hustings
So it appears that the major reapportionment battles will have to be fought out in the hustings. Redistricting aside, these elections are important for more fundamental reasons. Success at the local level helps the national parties train candidates and develop issues for higher levels. Moreover, the governor's office can often help make the difference between losing or winning a state in a presidential election.
Here is a brief look at six big states with likely increases or decreases in their congressional delegations:
--California: plus 5 or 6. Republicans are on the defensive here because Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and Republican Gov. George Deukmejian is retiring at the end of his second term. This creates an opening for a Democratic sweep of all three legs of the triad.
--Florida: plus 3. The Democratic Party still controls both houses of the Legislature. Republicans are counting on their governor, ex-Democrat Bob Martinez, to win reelection to keep them from being shut out.
--New York: minus 3. Democrats hold the governorship and, with incumbment Mario M. Cuomo expected to run for a third term, seem likely to retain it. The Democrats also hold the state Assembly, while the Republicans control the Senate.
--Ohio: minus 2 or 3. The present order of battle is similar to New York's. But two-term Democratic Gov. Richard F. Celeste cannot run again, opening the way for a stiff battle for that post. Democrats are in charge of the lower chamber of the Legislature, while the Republicans run the Senate.
--Pennsylvania: minus 2 or 3. Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey is expected to seek a second term, but the Republicans can be counted on to mount a major challenge for the governorship and also for the state Assembly, which the Democrats now hold by only a slim margin. Republicans already have a Senate majority.
--Texas: plus 3 or 4. With Democrats in control of both houses of the Legislature, the main event will be the battle to replace Republican Gov. Bill Clements, who is stepping aside. Among the possibilities on the Republican side: the President's eldest son, George W. Bush.
Staff researcher Aleta Embry contributed to this story.
THE OUTLOOK FOR REDISTRICTING
Governors in office in 1991 will have a major impact over the congressional redistricting process in their states. Redistricting will be most far-reaching in the states that gain or lose House seats.
KEY HOUSE DELEGATION CHANGES IN 1992
Likely Changes State in Seats Ariz. +1 Calif. +5to +6 Fla. +3 Ga. +1 Iowa -1 Ill. -2 Mass. -1 Mich. -2 to -3 Minn. -1 N.Y. -3 Ohio -2to -3 Pa. -2 to -3 Tex. +3 to +4 Va. +1
SOURCE: Project 500