San Jose Mercury News
Why state has few real
races for House: Redistricting, Deals Entrench
November 2, 2002
Two years ago, Rep. Mike Honda was
in the thick of one of the most competitive congressional races in
the country, with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and key
congressional leaders from both parties jetting in to San Jose to
raise money and sway voters.
This fall, no big political names are
coming anywhere near San Jose.
Honda, D-San Jose, is strongly
favored to win re-election, as are all of his 12 Bay Area colleagues
in the House of Representatives. Because of politically motivated
redistricting and the power of incumbency, there are no competitive
congressional races in the region, according to election analysts.
There is only one competitive race among all of California's
congressional districts, which now number 53 after the 2000 census.
That competition comes only because Rep. Gary Condit, D-Modesto, is
stepping down after the Chandra Levy controversy.
It is all part of
a trend that has seen the number of competitive House seats
nationwide more than halved over the past 10 years, limiting the
ability of either party to pick up large numbers of seats and
fueling more voter apathy.
With the evolution of computer programs
to conduct the once-a-decade redistricting process and after deals
between Republicans and Democrats to protect incumbents, only about
40 House races are even marginally competitive this year. In 1992,
there were 84 such races out of the 435 House seats.
20 races hold key
With Republicans holding just a six-seat majority in the House,
voters in no more than 20 too-close-to-call races nationwide
actually will determine which party controls the chamber. The stark
reality for Bay Area residents, according to the Center for Voting
and Democracy, is that they would probably have more of a say in
control of the House by sending a campaign contribution to a
candidate in one of those tossup races than by going to the polls
``We often criticize citizens for not voting and they
don't have many legitimate excuses, but this is one legitimate
excuse,'' said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at
the University of Virginia. ``Why bother to vote if there is no
contest, if there is no competition?''
Traditionally, the first
election after congressional lines are redrawn is the most
competitive of a decade. New district boundaries mean new voters for
many incumbents. And because the number of House seats is set at
435, states that gain population add new seats that have no
incumbents; states that lose population are stripped of seats, often
forcing two incumbents to run against each other.
But after the
2000 census, Democratic and Republican officials in California and
many other states opted to redraw districts to protect incumbents to
a far greater extent than ever before, said Rob Richie, executive
director of the non-partisan Center for Voting and Democracy.
``Political calculations far outweighed any public interest in
having more competitive choices,'' Richie said.
The impact of such
political calculations is evident by looking at Iowa, one of the few
states that use a non-partisan commission to redraw lines instead of
leaving it to elected state officials. Four of the five House races
in Iowa are competitive this year.
``They draw the lines based on
what makes sense for Iowa, believe it or not,'' Sabato said. ``If
you add up California, Illinois, Texas, New York and Virginia, you
have exactly the number of competitive House races as in little
Iowa. . . . It's incredible.''
In California, Democrats and
Republicans struck the incumbent-protection deal to avoid the court
battles triggered in the past when one party has tried to
gerrymander the redistricting process to its advantage. Districts
that had been competitive became either more solidly Democratic or
The Contra Costa County seat held by Rep. Ellen
Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, for example, was won by a Republican as
recently as 1994. Her win in 1996 was an upset, and she was targeted
by Republicans in 1998. This year, she doesn't even have a GOP
``Redistricting had something to do with the fact I
have no opponent,'' Tauscher said. Registered Democrats used to
outnumber registered Republicans by little more than one percentage
point in her district. Now, they outnumber Republicans by 10
But Honda's district is the
clearest example of how redistricting and the power of incumbency
have all but eliminated competition for Bay Area House seats.
2000, the seat was one of the relatively few nationwide where an
incumbent was not running. Former Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Campbell, who
held the seat for five years, gave it up to run for the Senate.
Vying to replace him were two well-known state Assembly members:
Honda and Republican Jim Cunneen.
Honda ended up winning by a
surprisingly wide 12 percentage points in a district that stretched
from Santa Cruz through Los Gatos and chunks of Santa Clara,
Sunnyvale, Campbell and San Jose.
But the district was still viewed
as ripe for upset because of its history of electing a moderate
``This redistricting was done very carefully, and they
knew that Mike Honda's seat was at risk,'' said Larry Gerston, a San
Jose State University political-science professor.
communities such as Gilroy were shifted to Honda's district from the
much safer district of Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose. The changes resulted
in a wider gap between registered Democrats and Republicans: from 10
percentage points to nearly 14 percentage points.
isn't the same district; it's fundamentally different,'' said
Cunneen, now president of the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of
But Cunneen also said Honda has done a good job, which
makes it hard to unseat him. Nationally, nearly 99 percent of House
incumbents have been re-elected in the past two elections.
61, does not think redistricting is the main reason why he is
strongly favored to win his race with Republican challenger Linda
Rae Hermann. He said he has tried to stay responsive to his
constituents, traveling back to San Jose every weekend while the
House is in session and launching a Web site that was named one of
the 15 best in Congress earlier this year.
Confident of his
re-election, Honda has traveled to states like Colorado, Minnesota
and New Jersey this year to help rally Asian-American support for
Meanwhile, Hermann, a 62-year-old from San
Jose who serves on the Berryessa school board, has been trying to
unseat him on a tight budget. With the race off the national radar
screen, Hermann has raised just $27,817. Honda has raised $815,213.
And she has had no success luring big-name Republicans to come
campaign or raise money.
ìWe did our proper amount of requests,''
she said. ``I've been around long enough to know you knock on a door
once, and then you move on.''