WASHINGTON — Florida may pick up as many as two seats in the U.S. House — further boosting the state's influence in Congress and making it an even bigger prize in the race for the White House.
Though the actual increase in seats won't be known until the U.S. Census Bureau makes it official Tuesday, early projections suggest Florida is a lock for one seat, and in contention for a second.
The creation of seats based on new census data is always a messy political and legal fight in Florida, pitting the parties and ambitious lawmakers from various regions against each other. And it's likely to be further complicated this time around by two voter-approved state constitutional amendments that create strict rules for how politicians can draw district maps.
The addition of two seats would bring the state's total number in the U.S. House of Representatives to 27. It would also boost Florida's Electoral College votes to 29 (the state's two senators are included in that math).
"Two seats would be like both LeBron James and Chris Bosh," said state Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, the top Democrat on one of the legislative committees that will handle redistricting. "To think that we could be more influential than the last couple of presidential elections is saying a lot, but two more seats surely would do it."
The state Legislature will decide where to put the new seats, with a potential nod to Central Florida: The University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research says that area has grown at a faster rate than any other region.
Florida would get its two seats as part of a broad population migration — and power shift — with Sun Belt states like Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Texas picking up seats that are being lost in declining Northern states, including Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The migration, which mirrors population movement in the country since World War II, could be good news for Republicans, with Rust Belt states trending Democratic, while Sun Belt states have leaned Republican.
"It's impossible to see how Republicans don't pick up a dozen or more House seats," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Democrats in Florida question whether Republicans, who already control two-thirds of the congressional delegation and the state House and Senate, will have enough voters in the state to create additional districts for the GOP without jeopardizing Republican incumbents. They note that state voter registration rolls show Democrats with an edge.
"I don't think they can draw any more Republican seats," said state Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, the House minority leader. "At a certain point it's got to be hard to sustain."
Some Republicans concede the point privately. But state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who will lead the Senate redistricting committee, says much of the speculation is premature. He promises a transparent process — the computer software that lawmakers will use to draw districts will be available to the public — and committees will hold a series of public hearings, beginning this summer.
"It will be the most open, transparent and interactive redistricting in the nation," said Gaetz, who had opposed the redistricting amendments. "We can have 19 million auditors of the process."
Though Republicans will control the committees that put together the new maps, they will be required to abide by the new amendments, which the party had opposed. The state amendments, which are aimed at creating more compact districts and not sprinkling inkblots, dictate that districts can't be drawn to either help or hurt an incumbent or a political party.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who is challenging the state amendment that governs congressional redistricting, along with U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, said he believes the federal courts will overturn the amendment. He and Brown say it violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting minority representation.
"We're hoping for some clarification before redistricting starts up," said Diaz-Balart, who was chairman of the House redistricting committee while in the Florida Legislature.
Ellen Freidin, the Miami attorney who championed the amendments as a way of creating more competitive districts, noted they passed with more than 60 percent of the vote, suggesting widespread discontent with the way districts are drawn by politicians.
"That's been proven beyond a reasonable doubt," she said.
Observers expect the dispute to end up in federal court. Redistricting plans end up in court more than 90 percent of the time, said Douglas Johnson, a fellow with the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College in California.
"Florida's redistricting," Johnson said, "is certainly not going to be a smooth ride."
The new census numbers have implications beyond politics. The figures are used in formulas that determine how much money each state receives in federal subsidies for health care and other services.
The housing crisis, however, may have affected the state's population and the result could be a single seat, rather than two. Figures compiled by Election Data Services, a Washington, D.C., company that tracks demographic and election trends, predicts two seats. But its president, Kimball Brace, said he was surprised by the prediction, given Florida's housing market.
Brace said a second Florida seat is "probably the iffiest'' of all of the predictions, which include Texas picking up four seats and Ohio and New York each losing two seats.
Another projection has Florida gaining a single seat.
"All these estimates are based on demographic models and we've never had a situation like the housing and foreclosure crisis," Johnson said. "The models don't know how to capture that. There's likely to be even more surprises than usual."
Still, a single seat is better than none: In 2000, the state of Utah unsuccessfully challenged the census results and sought to have Mormon missionaries living abroad counted as residents after narrowly losing a seat.
Said Stan Smith, director of the University of Florida's economic and business research bureau: "It's no small deal."
McClatchy Washington bureau reporter Les Blumenthal contributed to this report.