Monopoly Politics Redux :
Lopsided Congressional Races

Earlier this year, the Center made a list of 237 seats that it thought would be won by landslide margins of at least 20%. Only one of 237 was won by less than a landslide -- and that by 18%. And 98% of House incumbents again won re-election. Strong articles and commentaries discuss the roots of this problem in USA Today, Reuters and Slate, with CVD featured.

USA Today

Race for Congress leaves 90% out


Politicians and talking heads have been carrying on for months about today's close contest to determine whether Republicans or Democrats will control the levers of power in Congress. And rightly so.

A net shift of as few as seven seats could strip Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of his majority and give it to Democratic leader Richard Gephardt. Their dramatically different agendas on spending, tax policy and federal programs will affect what Congress does in the next two years.

Less often mentioned is that fewer than 10% of the nation's voters have any real voice in that choice.

In 90% of the country, today's congressional races were essentially decided long ago. State legislatures, eager to make seats safe for their parties, have gerrymandered district boundaries so that fewer than 40 of the nation's 435 House seats are really competitive.

In 90% of the country, today's congressional races were essentially decided long ago. State legislatures, eager to make seats safe for their parties, have gerrymandered district boundaries so that fewer than 40 of the nation's 435 House seats are really competitive.

In 64 districts, the population is so lopsidedly Democratic or Republican there's only one major-party name on the ballot. That includes four out of the seven seats in Alabama, five out of 11 in Virginia and 10 out of 23 in Florida.

Another 300 seats are so configured that even when there is competition the result is usually a landslide. Fewer than one in 10 House races in 1998 were decided by a margin of less than 10%.

The United States is the only major democracy that lets its politicians pick the voters before the voters get to pick the politicians. And that applies not just for congressional districts, but also for the legislatures themselves and other bodies where the opportunity exists.

In other countries, among them Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain, non-partisan technocrats draft district boundaries based on common-sense factors such as geographic compactness and unity of counties and cities, not incumbent protection or party convenience.

Iowa has pioneered here with a similar approach, and while some districts still lean to one party or another, a far greater proportion at least give voters a meaningful choice.

Soon the results of the 2000 Census will be in, requiring redrawing of almost every legislative district in the country, and the process will begin anew.

But prospects for improvement are slim. There is no strong movement to promote reform. But there should be. The care and feeding of representative democracy is too important to be left to the politicians. 


"Most Races for Congress Over Before They Start"
Monday October 300 4:33 PM ET
By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) While the struggle for control of the House of Representatives rages in three dozen hard-fought districts, at least 64 lawmakers can lean back, kick off their shoes and enjoy themselves on Nov. 7.

They face no major-party opposition, having effectively won their races before they even started.

In fact, most of their colleagues can coast through this election, too, even if they have a challenger on the ballot. As in past years, few incumbents will be booted from office, and about 400 of the 435 House races are essentially over.

The widespread lack of competition at the congressional and state legislative level is fueled by a once-a-decade redistricting process that creates increasingly safe one-party districts and the spectacular amounts of money needed to mount a challenge to an entrenched incumbent, analysts say.

``In the vast majority of races around the country, there is no question who is going to win,'' said Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. ''Absent an indictment or scandal or $1 million in the bank, it's awfully difficult to unseat an incumbent.''

In 1998, only six House incumbents -- five Republicans and a Democrat -- were kicked from office. The average re-election rate for incumbents, who enjoy tremendous advantages in name recognition and fund raising, is a whopping 94 percent over the last two decades.

Better Chance Of Dying

In fact, once elected to Congress, a lawmaker stands more chance of dying in office than he does of being beaten even in a party primary, where the built-in advantage of a one-party district should not be as much help.

Ten members of Congress have died since November 1992, while only eight have lost in primary challenges.

The situation is not much better in the Senate, where only 15 of 34 Senate races this year are remotely competitive and one incumbent, Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona, is unopposed.

``Once an incumbent settles in, they face very little competition,'' said Robert Richie, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy. ``The vast majority of races, particularly in the House, are fundamentally noncompetitive.''

Both parties seem to benefit equally from the competition vacuum -- of the 64 candidates without major-party opposition this year, 31 are Republicans and 33 are Democrats.

Analysts say the biggest contributor to the lack of competition is redistricting, the once-a-decade process in which the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn based on census data.

Redesign To Own Advantage

While they are supposed to be redrawn equally to reflect changes in population, parties have traditionally used the process to redesign districts to their advantage, shuffling whole neighborhoods or towns from one district to another in hopes of helping or hurting an incumbent or making a district more reliably Republican or Democratic.

Under redistricting, a process that begins in the state legislature in 44 of 50 states, ``legislators literally choose their constituents before their constituents choose them,'' Richie said in a recent report.

The other culprit is money. Campaign spending records are falling at all levels of the ballot, with the hotly contested race in Republican Rep. James Rogan's suburban Los Angeles district setting a new record of more than $10 million -- high even for a Senate race.

Incumbents can raise the big money they need more easily. In the first 18 months of the 2000 election cycle, there were only 71 House districts where a candidate did not hold at least a two-to-one financial advantage on the competition, Makinson said.

Political parties are hesitant to wade into a race and spend the crucial funds needed to support a challenger unless they sense a realistic hope of a pay-off.

``Your time and resources are limited and you need to focus on races you can win,'' said John Del Cecato, spokesman for the Democratic congressional campaign committee.

Even candidates with noncompetitive races still rake in the donations, Makinson said, building up war chests for future races or sprinkling colleagues with donations in preparation for runs at prestigious leadership or committee posts.

By July 1, 1999, more than a year before this year's election, the average incumbent had $300,000 in the bank for campaigning, Makinson said. That discourages challengers.

``There are a lot of incumbents raising a lot of money and setting it aside for the next campaign, and the moat they build around the castle of incumbency becomes even deeper,'' Makinson said.

Frustrated by the lack of competition, filmmaker Michael Moore launched a drive earlier this year to get voters to write in a potted plant -- specifically, a ficus -- in more than 20 congressional races where candidates were unopposed.

``In a country where the majority no longer vote, writing in ficus will give the disenfranchised voter a chance to cast a vote for 'none of the above,''' Moore said on his Ficus 2000 campaign Web site.


"The House Incumbent. He can't lose."
By David Plot, Slate's Washington bureau chief.
Posted Friday, Nov. 3, 2000, at 9:30 a.m. PT

Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., is running hard toward Election Day. The five-term incumbent has been legislating frantically in Washington: In the past eight weeks, he has pushed through (and publicized) a "Camp Bill" to ease international adoptions as well as four separate "Camp Provisions" (one to use unspent funds from House offices for debt reduction, another to ensure local control over the Great Lakes, etc.). Camp is stumping his central Michigan district (hello, Greenville Danish Festival) and soliciting endorsements by the bushel. By Sept. 30, he had raised nearly $1 million for his campaign and had spent more than $800,000 of it - a fortune in his rural district.

So has Camp held off some feisty challenger? Has he extinguished a grave Democratic threat to his seat? Uh, sort of. Given that hardly anyone has heard of Democrat Lawrence Hollenbeck, that Camp has outspent Hollenbeck by a ratio of nearly 200-1, and that Camp won 91 percent of the vote in 1998, he has as much chance of losing Tuesday as he does of getting hit by a blimp.

Is there a cushier job in America than incumbent House member? The media keep reminding us that this is the Free Agent Nation: No job is stable. We are all in a constant state of being fired and rehired and competing against younger, better-educated rivals. But our representatives have more job security than tenured professors.

Political analysts are noodling over the vicious battle for the House, so you might think that lots of members are competing in tight races. But the battle for the majority is largely confined to three dozen open seats. Of the 400 incumbents running for re-election, 64 have no opposition at all. Only 40 have remotely competitive races, according to Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report. And of those 40, only half a dozen are likely to lose. Barring an act of God -- and God is even less interested in Congress than voters are -- the 2000 incumbent re-election rate will top 97 percent, nearly equaling the 98 percent rate of 1998.

Incumbent re-election rates have been ridiculous for a generation. In the '40s and '50s, voters routinely fired more than 10 percent of the House. But the re-election rate has averaged about 95 percent for the past 40 years and has seldom slipped below 90 percent. More than half of districts lean so strongly to one party that no challenger has a chance, and most of the remainder have such entrenched incumbents that any challenge is doomed. In any election year, only 15 percent of districts are competitive.

Money, more than anything else, reinforces this status quo. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, incumbents have out-raised challengers nearly 3-1 during the 2000 cycle. (The real disparity is greater, because the CRP ratio doesn't count unchallenged incumbents.) In two-thirds of all House races, the leading candidate (invariably the incumbent) has out-raised the challenger more than 10-1.

The incumbent also exploits other benefits of office -- notably constituent service -- to suppress a challenge. Beginning in the '50s, says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy, incumbents "recognized that constituent service was a good way to shield themselves against partisan winds. They have made sure to serve [the] non-ideological needs of constituents." They hector Social Security for constituents, navigate the Medicare bureaucracy, grab Head Start funds. (Darrell West, political science professor at Brown University, notes that constituent service has become more important because the federal government has expanded so much. "Everyone needs a tour guide to government now.") Most incumbents establish well-staffed, friendly district offices and eagerly maximize their franking privileges. Camp brags that he has sent 300,000 letters during his tenure. That is enough constituents served to re-elect him twice over. (Common Cause found that incumbents spend more on franking -- which is federal money, not their own campaign funds -- than challengers spend on their entire campaigns.)

Incumbents also shovel pork furiously toward their districts. In the past month, Camp directed a "Higgins Lake Wastewater Demonstration Project" to his home, secured $44 million for bovine tuberculosis, and directed grants to local colleges.

Any year is a wonderful one to be an incumbent, but 2000 is particularly fine. It marks the end of a census cycle. Districts have been stable for five elections, so voters are familiar with their reps. According to the Cook Political Report's Walter, many strong challengers skipped the 2000 race to prepare for 2002, when redistricting will endanger some safe seats. Reapportionment is the best hope of the challenger: 1992 was the last year incumbents won less than 90 percent of House races.

And 2000 voters are incredibly complacent. The economy is good, the world seems safe. Why shake anything up? Not even grotesque behavior seems to bother voters. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., was caught with a hooker several years ago, but he faces no opposition. The House Ethics Committee recently brutalized Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., for misbehavior -- including spending "campaign" funds on fancy dinners with lobbyists at the Capitol Grille. But Shuster doesn't have a challenger either.

The tenuring of House members undermines democracy, reinforces the tyranny of money in politics, and deprives voters of real choices. But it is a lot of fun for the incumbents themselves. Most of them -- even those in the safest seats -- raise enormous sums they don't need. Part of this fund raising is pre-emptive. Having $700,000 in the war chest scares off most challengers and allows the incumbent to bank lots of cash for the next election, when a real rival might emerge. Part of the fund raising is convenience. Corporations and PACs are desperate to fund winners. If they want to supply you with a few grand, why not take it? And part of it is sycophantic. Incumbents collect cash so they can dole it out to colleagues in tough races. Both parties have even imposed quotas on their safe incumbents: They must ante up thousands to the party, which then distributes it to struggling candidates. Next year's committee assignments depend on this year's giving. Such donations butter up the recipients, who will return the favor one day.

There's no better evidence of the incumbents' easy life than how they are spending the election run-up. The House has remained in session, as GOP leaders and the White House war over the budget. You'd expect that anxious members of Congress would acquiesce to anything in order to end the session and get home to campaign. But GOP leaders remained intransigent, Congress has kept working, and there has been a shocking absence of congressional griping about the overtime. Then again, why should the incumbents complain? It's not like they have anything more urgent to do.

Related on the Web: The Center for Responsive Politics calculates the average amount raised by House incumbents and challengers. CRP also calculates how many races are competitive in fund raising and how many are "blowouts." The Center for Voting and Democracy lists the 64 unopposed incumbents . House races are so incredibly predictable that the Center picked the winner of more than 300 races -- 16 months ago. Track fund raising in the Michigan races and elsewhere at FECInfo.