Gerrymandering narrows Dem's 2006 edge

By Morton Kondracke
Published November 8th 2005 in Roll Call
If the public's esteem for President Bush and the Republican Congress remains as low as it is now, Democrats could win back control of the House - barely.

That's the conclusion of a new election analysis by the electoral reform group FairVote, in making the point that gerrymandering of House districts has made takeover prospects much more difficult for Democrats now than it was for Republicans in 1994.

That year, Republicans won 54.6 percent of the national vote for the House and picked up 52 seats.

If Democrats managed a similar popular-vote feat next year, FairVote figures, they might conceivably net the 15 seats they need to take over the House, but the more likely result would be a single-digit gain.

"It's pretty appalling," said FairVote's executive director, Rob Richie, whose group advocates handling redistricting through nonpartisan commissions rather than elected politicians.

One Democratic consultant deeply involved in tracking House races seat by seat confirmed the gist of FairVote's analysis, with an optimistic spin.

"I used to think it was impossible for us to take the House back," he said. "But Bush and the Republicans are in such bad shape that it's still uphill, but it's achievable."

Indeed, Bush and the GOP Congress are in bad shape, with the Harriet Miers debacle and the indictment of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff coming as just the latest blows. polling averages show Bush's approval rating at 41.3 percent, Congress' approval at 31.8 percent, the direction of the country at 61 percent negative and the Democrats' advantage on the generic Congressional vote number at 7.2 percent.

If these numbers hold - and a year is a long time in politics - then 2006 should be a disastrous year for Republicans, based on past election history, GOP pollster Bill McInturff told reporters at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast in early October.

Since 1962, he said, the president's party has lost an average of 43 House seats in off-year elections whenever his approval rating fell below 50 percent.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan had an approval rating of 43 percent on Election Day and Republicans lost 26 seats. Former President Bill Clinton's approval rating was at 46 percent when his party lost control of the House.

But historical patterns of Congressional losses no longer apply, according to Richie, partly because there is no evidence that a new partisan realignment is under way, and partly because districts are so gerrymandered that only 30 or so Congressional districts out of 435 are competitive.

The two parties, otherwise bitterly polarized, conspired after the 2000 Census to protect incumbents by packing Republican voters into Republican districts and Democrats into Democratic districts, so that only 59 seats are held by members of a different party from the one that carried his or her district in the 2004 presidential election.

In 2000, there were 86 such districts, according to the "Politics of Polarization" report compiled by Democratic scholars Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck. In 1992 and 1996, there were more than 100 split districts.

Of the 59 current split districts, only 18 are represented by a Republican and were carried by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., making them theoretically ripe for pickoff.

Democratic hopes partly ride on the fact that Republicans occupy 40 districts that Bush carried by less than 8 percent. Half of the 52 seats Republicans picked up in 1994 were in districts Clinton had carried by a similar number in 1992.

Another difference between 1994 and 2006, at least for now, is a comparative lack of open seats. There were 52 in 1994, of which 39 were carried by Republicans, including 22 that were previously occupied by Democrats.

This year, there are only 18 open seats, 12 of which are held by Republicans so far. If Democrats win 54.6 percent of the national popular vote, as in 1994, Richie projected that they might carry 10 of the 18 but could easily get fewer.

In 1994, Republicans defeated 34 Democratic incumbents. "As of now," Richie said, "there just aren't that many Republicans in districts that lean Democratic." There are only four districts that Kerry carried by 55 percent or better that are currently occupied by Republicans.

"Still, in a 54-46 year," Richie said, "our model projects 13 Republican incumbents would be vulnerable. On average, about one in four will lose. We could add three or four who might lose who we wouldn't project as safe winners, but there could be a couple of Democratic losers even in a Democratic year.

"So, without factoring in any new open seats, that leaves Democrats with perhaps 8 gains in open seats,

7 or 8 defeats of incumbent (Republicans) and one incumbent loss, which would put them right on the bubble for taking control of the House - but nothing like 1994."

Democrats obviously will be glad to take power, but they, and the GOP, ought to resolve to make no more incumbent-protection deals in future decades. Gerrymandering thwarts the public will and prevents a winning party from really winning.

Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.