More than ever, incumbents in driver's seat
October 30 , 2002
For most voters, next week's
congressional elections are no contest.
Despite the expenditure of
millions of dollars for ads -- and breathless analysis of how
critical the election will be -- nearly 90% of Americans live in
districts where their votes for the House of Representatives don't
The once-every-10-years redrawing of congressional lines,
which traditionally boosts competition, has done the reverse this
year. More than three of four incumbents who had relatively close
races in 2000 and whose districts were redrawn now have districts
friendlier to them.
As the campaign enters its final week, the
winners are already clear in close to 400 of the 435 contests for
Political analysts say that the overwhelming
predominance of safe congressional seats has helped depress voter
turnout to record lows, increased Washington's partisan divide and
virtually guaranteed legislative gridlock on some issues.
''Normally, we think of democracy as voters choosing their
representatives,'' says Nathaniel Persily, a University of
Pennsylvania Law School professor who acts as a court-appointed
expert in redistricting cases. ''Actually, the redistricting process
is about representatives choosing their voters. That decision has as
much if not more effect on democracy than the actual elections
Of course, re-election as a member of the House has
long been one of the safest bets in politics. But it has gotten even
safer as strategists have honed the fundraising and other advantages
of incumbency. Both parties have become more ideologically
consistent, and there are fewer of the conservative Southern
Democrats and moderate-to-liberal Northeast Republicans who once
pushed for common ground with the other side.
which 10 years ago shook things up, instead has taken even more
congressional districts out of competition.
''It's made Congress
more contentious,'' says Mark Gersh of the National Committee for an
Effective Congress, a non-profit group that studies election trends.
''Even popular things like prescription drugs (coverage for seniors)
are hard to get through. You probably end up with better government
when members of Congress are more accountable to their constituents
for their re-election.''
Now, outstanding members of Congress are
almost sure to be re-elected, but so are mediocre ones. Only those
who represent one of the handful of competitive districts or become
ensnared in scandal are likely to be endangered.
In an analysis by
the non-partisan Cook Political Report, the only moderately
competitive House race among 53 in California is in the district
that incumbent Gary Condit represented. He was forced to retire
after becoming enmeshed in questions about his personal relationship
with Chandra Levy, a former Washington intern who disappeared last
year and later was found dead. Texas, whose 32 seats make up the
second-largest delegation, also has just one competitive race. New
York, the third-biggest delegation with 29 seats, doesn't have any.
In 17 other states, from Alaska to Wyoming, the outcome of every
congressional race is virtually assured.
A friendlier landscape
Here in Illinois, a redistricting deal struck by House Speaker
Dennis Hastert, the ranking Republican in the delegation, and Rep.
William Lipinski, the ranking Democrat, left just one of the state's
19 congressional districts competitive. In two districts in central
Illinois that had seen close races in recent years, one was made
safer for the Democratic incumbent and the other safer for the
Both congressmen, Republican Tim Johnson and Democrat
Lane Evans, now have oddly shaped districts -- but no serious
For Richard Springman, 62, a retired mechanic and avid
Democrat who now finds himself in Johnson's district, that's
disappointing. He has pitched a sign on his lawn for challenger
Joshua Hartke, 28, a newcomer to politics who was drafted by
Democratic county chairmen when no one else would run. Even Hartke,
who is being outspent 100-to-1, acknowledges that his candidacy is
the longest of long shots.
''I feel like I don't have a voice,''
says Springman, a large man with a full beard and a bright blue
United Auto Workers (news - web sites) jacket. He crossed district
lines the other day to cheer at a campaign event for the Democratic
incumbent next door.
Two years ago, Johnson was a state legislator
who unexpectedly prevailed in a nasty three-way Republican primary
for the nomination, then defeated Democrat Mike Kelleher Jr. in a
hard-fought general election, 53% to 47%.
This time, running in a
redrawn district with the name recognition and other advantages of
incumbency, Johnson, 56, doesn't even make a hard sell for votes as
he stops in to shake hands at St. John's Lutheran Church in rural
Buckley. The basement is jammed with diners for the Ladies' Aid
turkey dinner, serving homemade rolls and three kinds of pie at $7 a
Earlier in the day, Johnson met for an hour at the Vineyard
Church in Champaign with voters concerned about health care. Some
told how their lack of health insurance had catastrophic
consequences for their families. The congressman detailed what the
House had debated this year on health care. ''I'm not going to say a
single thing about the election,'' he concluded to scattered
laughter. ''You can vote for whoever you wish.''
The new district
lines, drawn in consultation with his top aide and aides of the
other incumbents, gave him new constituents to cultivate but also
bolstered his Republican base. The vote for President Bush (news -
web sites) in his old district was 52.7%; in his new district it was
56%, with a corresponding decline in the vote for Democrat Al Gore
(news - web sites). Johnson is now confident enough about his
prospects that he has withdrawn the pledge he made in the first
campaign to voluntarily limit himself to three terms.
''I've got to
say in all candor, the innate advantages that an incumbent member of
Congress has, particularly after redistricting, are really pretty
dramatic,'' Johnson says in an interview. Not that he's taking it
easy: Wiry and fast-talking, he travels the district indefatigably,
focusing more on getting federal grants and cutting red tape for
residents than on national issues. ''We have a number of employees
that simply do their jobs, serving the constituents, . . . and when
I go to Carmi or I go to South Streator, you're a celebrity. The
media come and spend time with you. People know who you are.
you're a challenger, it's just a continual uphill struggle.''
That's true, Hartke says. As the campaign was beginning, he was
laid off his job as a computer programmer at the University of
Illinois, which has freed him to ''go to a lot of county fairs'' and
shake hands, he says. But while Johnson is airing radio and TV ads,
Hartke doesn't have the money for much more than gas. He has raised
so little that he hasn't yet had to file the federal report required
after amassing $5,000. Johnson has raised close to $500,000.
Kelleher, who gave Johnson a close race last time, opened a
campaign office in February and was planning to seek a rematch when
the redrawn districts were unveiled. But the new border just
happened to put his house a half-block outside Johnson's district.
He reluctantly switched to the race for lieutenant governor but
lost in the primary. ''If I thought I could win in that
congressional district, I would have run,'' says Kelleher, 41, who
teaches political science at Illinois State University in
Bloomington-Normal. ''But it's impossible under normal circumstances
for Democrats to win that district.''
To make Johnson's 15th
District more Republican, it grew a scorpion's tail that stretches
more than 100 miles along the Indiana border into conservative
southern Illinois. To make Evans' 17th District more Democratic, it
gained two arms that reach into the center of the state to grab
pockets of Democratic voters.
No more grease pencils
There was a
time when state legislators used grease pencils and state highway
maps to plot new lines for congressional districts. The lines are
redrawn, usually by state legislatures and governors, after the
Census every 10 years to ensure that each district has roughly the
Now legislatures, political parties, interest
groups and individual members of Congress use computer software that
can display Census data, voter registration information and past
election tallies to show the impact, block by block, of changing a
district boundary. It is the political equivalent of genetic
The last time districts were redrawn, in 1992, the
risks were higher for incumbents. With turmoil from reconfigured
districts and a controversy about overdrawn checks at the House
bank, the re-election rate for incumbents dipped below 90% for the
first time since 1974, when the Watergate scandal roiled the
congressional election. One in four members of the Congress that
took office in 1993 were newcomers, the highest proportion since
1948. The increased competitiveness created some historic
opportunities: the number of women in the House jumped to 47 from
28, the number of racial minorities to 59 from 37. Both were
But this year, in an example of backroom bipartisanship,
most state legislatures used redistricting to protect incumbents in
both parties. Analysts predict the number of women and minority
members won't increase and may even decline. Of incumbents who had
relatively competitive races in 2000, just nine have districts that
became less safe for them because of redistricting, a study by the
Center for Voting and Democracy found.
Five of those are in the
handful of states that tried to minimize political calculations in
redistricting -- in Washington state, which uses a commission to
draw the lines, and Minnesota, where Gov. Jesse Ventura, an
independent, opposed plans to protect incumbents. Iowa, which has a
relatively independent system in which state employees draw the
lines, has five districts but sports competitive races in three of
them, the most in the nation.
In all, the center calculates that
132 districts were potentially competitive in 2000 -- that is,
neither party was so dominant that the other side had almost no
chance to win. After redistricting, that number fell to 112. In a
separate analysis, political scientist Michael McDonald of George
Mason University figures that 158 districts in 2000 were potentially
competitive; now that number has dropped to 140.
of this year's redistricting are likely to reverberate for a decade
-- making races even less competitive as members become entrenched
in new districts -- until the lines are next redrawn before the 2012
In theory, a member of Congress who has a safely
partisan district could be liberated from political constraints,
free to vote his or her conscience. ''If you've got a safe district,
you can occasionally make a decision on an issue that is not
predictable,'' says Sen. Dick Durbin, a former House member from
central Illinois who was appearing at a campaign event here with
Evans. A member of Congress for 20 years, Evans faces what is
expected to be his easiest election yet.
In practice, however,
members from safe districts tend to hold more sharply ideological
views. After all, their re-election is more likely to be threatened
by losing a primary than the general election. And the primary
electorate is dominated by the most partisan voters.
members of Congress forced to run in districts that aren't safely
Democratic or Republican, the political center has vanished in the
House, analysts say. ''The irony is that the American people are a
lot less divided than their representatives can appear,'' says
Robert Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy.
line: Whatever else happens next Tuesday, the House almost certainly
will continue to be narrowly divided, because there aren't enough
seats in play to give either Republicans or Democrats firm control.
And the chamber is likely to be even more polarized between the
parties, making the prospect of compromise on issues more distant.
At Vineyard Church in Champaign, that leaves some worried about
whether their problems getting health insurance are likely to be
solved anytime soon. ''Very honestly, there's an eroding faith in
the American political system,'' says Vern Fein, 61, a
special-education teacher. ''People feel like the average person
doesn't have that much to say about what happens.''
McWilliams, 45, a legal-services attorney, is more optimistic that
the political system will respond. But she agrees that she'd like a
more competitive contest for Congress. ''It would be more fun to
have a livelier debate,'' she says.