WASHINGTON — Florida will gain two U.S. House seats as Census Bureau data released Tuesday realigned Congress and continues a steady shift of population and political power to the South and West.
A 17.6 percent population boom in the past decade will give Florida 27 House members beginning in 2012, boosting the state's clout and ability to draw more federal funding.
Florida now has as many seats as New York, a significant marker that shows how far the state has come since the advent of air conditioning.
Already the biggest swing state in presidential elections, Florida stands to be even more influential. The population growth — up to 18.8 million from 15.9 million — will push Florida's Electoral College votes to 29.
"What a great day for Florida!" said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.
Now comes the hard part: determining where the new seats will go, an often bitter political fight that may not be resolved until June 2012.
The Republican-led Florida Legislature will decide where to put the seats, and there is early talk of Central Florida getting the attention because of its rapid growth. Tampa Bay and Southwest Florida also could be a consideration.
Overall, the nation's population April 1 was 308,745,538, up from 281.4 million a decade ago, or 9.7 percent. It was the slowest decade-long growth rate since the Great Depression. Florida remains the fourth-largest state, behind California, Texas and New York.
The demographic shift made winners out of the South and West and losers out of the Northeast and Midwest.
Texas was the biggest winner, with four new House seats, putting its delegation at 36 members. Gaining one seat each: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington.
Ohio and New York will lose two House seats each. Losing one House seat are Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The gains come as part of the 10-year "resident population" count by the U.S. Census Bureau. Florida began with just four seats a century ago and picked up more each decade.
In 1960, the state had 12 House members. By 2000 it had reached the current 25, of which Republicans hold an overwhelming 19.
According to PoliData, Florida would have gained only one seat, not two, if the census had only counted U.S. citizens in making its apportionment calculations.
Several other states with large Hispanic populations — including both illegal immigrants and legal immigrants who have not become naturalized citizens — would have had different totals as well.
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Florida voters in November passed constitutional amendments requiring the drawing of compact districts, not the jigsaw boundaries of the past that were designed to benefit one party. Court fights have been common. Republicans opposed the amendments.
State Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican who will head up Florida's redistricting effort, said he has already been flooded with calls from members of Congress and would-be representatives (he would not name names) offering suggestions of where the lines should be drawn.
"Apparently I have new friends everywhere," Gaetz said, laughing. "I don't think anybody can take the politics out of politics. However my goal is to have the most open, transparent and interactive redistricting process in America."
He said a website would be established with detailed maps incorporating census data and current congressional and state legislative seats so the public can see before and after models. Public hearings will be held.
The work will begin in April after the census provides highly detailed block-by-block population data. "Until we really have that," Gaetz said, "it's hard to figure where the two additional congressional seats will go."
The new seats, subject to legislative review, must be complete by June 2012, when candidates will declare their intent to run.
Democrats sought to remind their counterparts of the voter mandate for "fair districts" and called for an end to partisan maneuvering.
But the party shared in the excitement and said it ensures Florida will continue to play a critical role in presidential elections as the "largest and most important swing state."
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Overall, the gains came in Republican-friendly states and that could be a problem for President Barack Obama as he seeks re-election.
Had the new apportionment numbers been used during the presidential election of 2008, Obama would still have won, but with six fewer electoral votes, according to Election Data Services.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs played down the implications, saying he did not think the census would have "huge practical impact" in national politics.
The GOP undoubtably feels more secure, with most of the gains happening in Republican-leaning states and with the GOP controlling a large share of the nation's legislative bodies.
But it's still too early to declare it a boon. In states such as Florida with a large number of Republican districts, it could be tough to carve out more.
"It's not as straight away and clear cut as saying it's all a big gain for the GOP," said Tim Storey, a redistricting analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.