Minnesota's flagging population growth could cost it a congressional seat in 2012, but a strong response to next year's census might prevent the state from losing representation.

A Washington-area consultant has projected that Minnesota's population will grow at a slower pace than some states in the West and South, putting at risk one of Minnesota's eight seats.

But Kim Brace, president of the bipartisan Election Data Services, cautioned that the populations of several states are so similar that a strong Minnesota turnout in the 2010 census could preserve all eight of the state's congressional seats.

"As a result, it would pay for everybody in Minnesota to fill out their census forms," Brace said, adding that the difference between seven and eight seats could be as few as 7,000 people.

Minnesota state demographer Tom Gillaspy agrees that the state is "on the cusp" of losing a seat, but says he's increasingly confident that it won't.

"We've done a really good job of counting people in the last couple of censuses, and if we do that again, we'll be OK," Gillaspy said.

According to his projections, Minnesota now would be 1,100 people short of keeping all eight seats. The state is competing with Missouri, California and Texas for a final seat.

"Basically, this is a dead heat," Gillaspy said.

The reapportionment of House seats allocated to each state is based on population counts by the U.S. census every 10 years.

Losing a congressional seat would set off a fight between Republicans and Democrats over which member of the delegation would pay the price.

The Minnesota Legislature and governor would be faced with deciding which seat to eliminate -- a highly political job that could end in a stalemate and ultimate court challenge.

If Minnesota were targeted to give up a seat, the Sixth Congressional District represented by Republican Michele Bachmann would be particularly vulnerable, said Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

That's because the Sixth, which includes eastern, northern and western suburbs, is an odd shape that would make it a likely candidate to carve up, he said. If so, Bachmann could be forced to run in a less conservative district.

Because DFLers control the Minnesota House and Senate, Republicans would need to keep the governor's office to block such a strategy, Smith said.

"The governor's race will be essential," he said.

If Republicans managed to take control of the Legislature and governor's office, they would likely try to carve up the First Congressional District represented by Democrat Tim Walz, Smith said.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210