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Deseret News

Matheson's No. 1 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 reasons.

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.

That formula 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 thanks to a redrawing of boundaries by the unfriendly GOP-controlled Utah Legislature.

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 and add in rural Republican counties.

In his new district, about 64 percent of voters supported George W. Bush in the last election 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.

"He 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 like Matheson 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.

Possibly working 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 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 Democrats.

It might even make some European systems look good to them 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).

That might be fair, too. But life and Utah's House district lines are not fair.


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