WASHINGTON - As Democrats seek to topple freshman Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack next year, one place they may look is outside his Eighth Congressional District -- at least as it's configured now.
Tarryl Clark, whose profile rose sharply last year when she took on U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in the Sixth District, is being considered by DFL Party insiders as a potential challenger to Cravaack.
That's because Clark's home in St. Cloud could wind up in any of three districts -- the Sixth, Seventh or Eighth -- once the post-census redistricting dance shakes out. Both congressional and legislative districts will be redrawn to reflect population shifts in the 2010 Census.
Clark, a former state senator, said recently that it's too soon to talk about 2012 but added that she's probably not done with public service.
"St. Cloud could be in three different districts," she said. "Obviously, that impacts lots of people's decisions, and mine as well."
Cravaack's victory last fall over 36-year U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar has turned the Eighth District into the state's main redistricting battleground, as Democrats hope to regain the seat they held for decades and the GOP tries to make it permanently red. If Clark were to run there, she'd be in a more Democratic district going against a first-term incumbent, rather than against Bachmann, who shattered House records in fundraising last year.
But it would be difficult for Clark to do so if St. Cloud doesn't get pushed into the Eighth.
"If she had to move into the district in order to do it, I think that would be tougher," said Wy Spano, a longtime DFL strategist and co-director of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Clark is just one person whose political fortunes are tied to redistricting. Incumbents in Congress and the Legislature, as well as potential challengers, all could see their prospects rise or fall as lines are redrawn.
Shifts in Minnesota's population to the suburbs will result in more than 340,000 people being moved into new congressional districts. Bachmann's Sixth is poised to see the greatest change, as it must shed more than 90,000 people, according to 2009 estimates.
Politics at play
While redistricting is about numbers -- districts must have the same population -- the process is dominated by politics, with each party aiming to maximize its strength when the boundaries are drawn.
"This is an all-hands-on-deck project," said Michael Brodkorb, the Minnesota GOP's lead on redistricting. "We're likely going to have dozens and dozens involved in the process. It's that important."
The Census Bureau will release detailed Minnesota figures next week, kicking off the map-drafting, deal-making process at the State Capitol.
It's unlikely to be resolved quickly. The last few redistricting fights have landed in court, and already this year both parties have filed preemptive lawsuits.
"There very likely could be two or three or four different plans," said state demographer Tom Gillaspy. "Most likely, it's going to go to the courts."
Redrawing the map
Minnesota avoided an all-out redistricting war by hanging on -- barely -- to all eight of its U.S. House seats in the census. But the population shifts leave plenty of room for fighting over boundaries.
The biggest population increases occurred in GOP-leaning Twin Cities suburbs. The fast-growing Sixth and Second will fall in numbers as districts are rebalanced for population, while the state's urban districts, outstate northern districts and southern First District will gain voters.
Each party has a decision to make: try to expand the playing field by dispersing loyal voters from the edges of solid districts into neighboring territory, or try to shore up existing seats.
Agreeing on strategy within the parties won't be simple, either, as each incumbent has a different self-interest.
"Redistricting at its most elemental is never about party as much as about 'my district,'" said Spano.
Cravaack's seat already has landed on a list that national Democrats plan to target, and both parties want to gain an advantage through redistricting.
The Eighth needs to add roughly 13,000 people, with Bachmann's adjoining conservative-leaning district the likely source.
The new boundaries likely won't be settled until early next year, leaving potential challengers like Clark with incomplete information as they craft their game plans.
The worst scenario for Clark would be if all of Stearns County is pushed into the Seventh District, which Democrat Collin Peterson has held since 1990.
While Clark isn't revealing her plans yet, her campaign has sent out seven e-mails to supporters since the election, and she has made several speaking appearances.
"I have every intention of keeping active, and think it's important to hold people who [say extreme things] accountable," she said. "And the rest we'll figure out at some point."
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723