Northeast Kansas will likely be redistricting debate's core

TOPEKA — Congressional redistricting debates among Kansas legislators are likely to focus on the northeast part of the state, and Democrats drubbed in this year's elections hold out some hope that new lines will improve their chances of capturing a U.S. House seat in two years.

U.S. Census Bureau figures released last week confirmed that Kansas won't lose any of its four House seats, a result expected by the state's political leaders. But those same leaders anticipate that future census data will show significant shifts in population from rural areas to urban and suburban ones.

They expect the already sprawling and rural 1st District of western and central Kansas to grow geographically because most of its counties have lost population, some significantly. The 3rd District, centered on the state's portion of the Kansas City metropolitan area, is expected to shrink, because Johnson County has seen the state's most robust population growth.

What that really means is that legislators have to figure out what to do with Lawrence and Kansas City, Kan., two of the handful of Kansas communities where Democrats are strong. Lawrence is divided between the 3rd and the 2nd District of northeast Kansas, while all of Kansas City, Kan., is in the 3rd.

The most likely result is that some Democratic areas of either county will move into the 2nd District, represented by two-term Republican Lynn Jenkins, making her district at least a little more competitive for Democrats.

The state has an all-GOP congressional delegation, and Republicans hold all statewide offices and huge majorities in both legislative chambers — but that actually might make the next congressional redistricting trickier.

"When you have a Democrat and Republican who are trying to figure out redistricting, deals can be made that are mutually beneficial," said state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. "When you have two Republican congressmen who are arguing about which district gets a Democratic area, it can be very complex."

Jenkins and the state's three GOP congressmen-elect so far have little to say about redistricting, which is expected, given that the state won't have its new district lines in place until late spring 2012. The state's U.S. House members also have traditionally tried to keep their disputes about redistricting from becoming public, even at the height of the Legislature's debate.

Legislators also must consider factors other than what the congressional delegation wants, because their redistricting work is subject to review by the courts. They have to ensure that the districts are as equal in population as possible, and they're supposed to avoid splitting "communities of interest."

"People sure get nervous when they see lines move," said House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, who was involved in redistricting in 1992 and 2002. "It's probably a good thing that we do this only once every 10 years."

Republicans can control the redistricting debate, having swept all statewide and congressional races on the ballot this year for the first time since 1964. Their majorities are 92-33 in the House and 32-8 in the Senate, giving them their strongest legislative advantages since the 1950s.

Officials are still awaiting the release of county-by-county population data from this year's census, but comparisons of 2000 data to 2009 estimates suggest these trends:

* Johnson County had an estimated population increase of more than 19 percent from 2000 to 2009, and Douglas County is No. 2, with an estimated increase of 16 percent.

* Large swaths of western Kansas, particularly the northwest, are emptying out. Eighty-five of the state's 105 counties appear to have lost population, and 14 had an estimated decline of more than 15 percent.

The numbers suggest that Johnson and Wyandotte counties combined have almost enough population to constitute a new 3rd District. Gates thinks keeping both together, intact, is the most logical choice for lawmakers, given their ties as part of the larger Kansas City metro area.

In such a scenario, all of Lawrence is most likely to end up all in the 2nd District, as it was in 1982-92, linked to Topeka. But for most of the past century, Lawrence has been in the same congressional district as Johnson County.

"There's certainly a little more commonality with Johnson County than there is with parts of the 2nd District," Davis acknowledged.