A tough year for RNC chairman

By David S. Broder Published:

By David S. Broder

WASHINGTON -- Ken Mehlman has not had an easy time of it in his first year as chairman of the Republican National Committee. As the point man for the White Houses political team, he has experienced defeats at the hands of the Democrats in last Novembers two big gubernatorial races -- and growing criticism from within GOP ranks about President Bushs policy stumbles. From Social Security to Katrina to the Dubai Ports deal, Mehlman has been on the receiving end of brickbats.

But last week he could watch as two politically important victories became likely in an arena where Republicans still hold sway -- the Supreme Court.

The justices questions during oral arguments strongly suggested that legislation to limit campaign spending enacted by Vermont would be struck down --as Republicans hope.

In a more complex case, challenging Texas mid-decade Republican congressional redistricting plan, the hints from the high court bench were that the substance of the scheme -- if not every feature -- would survive judicial scrutiny.

For a party as hard-pressed as Republicans are these days, the prospect of twin victories when the Supreme Court hands down its decisions this spring is welcome news indeed.

It shows the advantage the GOP has gained in seeing seven of the nine seats on the Supreme Court filled by appointees of Republican presidents.

The Vermont case was a relative slam-dunk. Under the controlling Supreme Court precedent, now almost 30 years old, political contributions may be limited in order to avoid the appearance of corruption, but political spending -- which the court said directly implicates freedom of expression -- may not.

Vermont challenged that decision with sliding-scale limits on spending for races from governor down to state Legislature. But Chief Justice John Roberts questioned whether there really was any corruption problem in Vermont and Justice Stephen Breyer -- one of the two Democrats on the bench -- joined in the public worries about the limits being so low as to stifle competition.

The Texas case is harder to forecast. It stems from the Legislature, with a newly elected Republican majority, approving in 2003 a congressional redistricting plan, promoted by Rep. Tom DeLay, that yielded six more Republican seats in the 32-member delegation. The previous map was drawn up by the courts in 2001 when the Legislature, then divided between the parties, deadlocked.

In numerous briefs filed by critics and supporters of the Republican plan, the court was asked to consider the propriety of any mid-decade redistricting, the rights and wrongs of the oddly shaped districts that resulted and the impact on minority constituencies who enjoy special protection under the Voting Rights Act.

There was little in the oral argument to suggest the court would find any constitutional bar to the mid-decade redistricting -- especially since it was the first plan to emerge from the Legislature.

As for the gerrymandering of district lines, even in odd configurations, the court has traditionally chosen to stay out of that political thicket, and Justice David Souter, often the most liberal of the Republicans, told the attorney challenging the plan that its impossible to take partisanship out of the political process.

The impact on Latino and African-American voters appeared to trouble some of the justices. Questioning showed that about 100,000 Hispanics had been moved out of a south Texas district, improving the election prospects of Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla. The state contended they were shifting Democrats -- not Latinos --and Roberts, for one, appeared to buy the argument that the motivation was political, not racial.

Mehlman, who supervised the Republicans brief on the case, came to court to watch the arguments and -- with all the usual lawyerly cautions about not reading the justices minds -- said afterward, I feel very good about it.

Some scholars with less of a partisan bias warn that the Vermont case will leave the escalating cost of campaigns unchecked and the Texas case may unleash a national wave of repeated redistricting every time a legislature changes hands.

Mehlman said he thinks those fears are exaggerated. Few states would contemplate setting campaign-spending limits as low as Vermont did, he said, and the Texas circumstances -- legislative gridlock preventing correction of an earlier districting plan open to criticism as a Democratic gerrymander -- are unique.

Besides, after the year hes had, hes in no position to look a gift horse in the mouth.

2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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