No. 1 ’Äî on vulnerability list
By Lee Davidson
October 2, 2002
Guess who is
America's most vulnerable U.S. House incumbent?
It's freshman Rep.
Jim Matheson, D-Utah, according to the Center for Voting and
Democracy. But it puts Matheson atop that list for some unusual
Unlike most pundits, the center does not base its ratings
on what kind of job incumbents do in Congress, how much money they
raise, their poll numbers (Matheson has always led, by the way), or
even whether they face scandals.
The center looks solely at the mix
of how Democratic or Republican their House district is, how long
the incumbent has served and his past winning margin.
has led to projections that are phenomenally accurate.
In fact, the
center predicted the outcome of 930 House races before the past
three elections. It was correct in 929, for a success rate of 99.9
percent. (It won't issue predictions for seats where its formula
says races are too close to call).
It says Matheson's race against
Republican John Swallow is too close to call right now. But it also
says no other House incumbent nationally is running in a district
where such a large majority belong to the opposing party ’Äî thanks to
a redrawing of boundaries by the unfriendly GOP-controlled Utah
And Robert Richie, executive director of the center,
said things weren't all that good for Matheson even before
redistricting this year.
For example in what his center considered
the 40 most-conservative districts in the nation in 2000,
"Republicans won 39. Democrats won a single race in that category:
Jim Matheson in Utah. And his district has become more Republican in
2002," Richie said.
While Matheson's old, current district is
entirely in Salt Lake County, his new district was redrawn to cut
out many of its more Democratic areas ’Äî and add in rural Republican
In his new district, about 64 percent of voters supported
George W. Bush in the last election ’Äî compared to 57 percent who
voted for Bush in Matheson's current district.
Based on the center's
formulas, Richie projects Matheson would win only about 47 percent
of the vote. "He could do as bad as 37 percent," Richie said.
has to do much, much better than Al Gore did in that district, and
he has to do it in a way we just don't see happening often. It does
happen now and then in certain places, and Utah could be that kind
of place," Richie said.
After all, Democrats such as former Reps.
Wayne Owens, Karen Shepherd and Bill Orton ’Äî like Matheson ’Äî have
all managed to win in Republican districts in Utah within the past
12 years, thanks to ticket-splitting Utahns.
Richie said that only
happens in a few places anymore, like the conservative Dakotas where
Democrats still do well; conservative parts of Texas, where some
moderate Democratic incumbents hang on; and in some liberal New York
areas, where some Republicans manage still to win.
against ticket splitting this year, however, is how closely the
House is divided. If Democrats pick up just five seats, they take
control of the House. Richie said that tends to make Republicans
less likely to vote for any Democrat.
Meanwhile, Richie says the
election is already essentially over in 331 of the nation's 435
House districts ’Äî because of district boundaries that give one party
heavy majorities over the other. He says his center can safely
predict winning parties in those districts years in advance, without
knowing exactly who will run.
Richie says among places where the
election is over is Utah's 1st and 3rd House districts. He predicts
partisan makeup there ensures that Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, will
easily beat Democrat Nancy Jane Woodside, and that Republican Rob
Bishop will beat Democrat Dave Thomas for the seat of retiring Rep.
Jim Hansen, R-Utah.
In short, unfriendly boundary lines and the
winner-take-all election system could make 2002 a long year for Utah
It might even make some European systems look good to
them ’Äî where seats are divided according to the percentage of votes
a party receives. If Utah did that, outnumbered Utah Democrats would
still receive one of the state's three House seats if they won at
least 25 percent of the vote (which Democrats always do).
be fair, too. But life and Utah's House district lines are not fair.