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USA Today

More than ever, incumbents in driver's seat
By Susan Page
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 matter.

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 the House.

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 themselves.''

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.

Now redistricting, 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 Republican.

Both congressmen, Republican Tim Johnson and Democrat Lane Evans, now have oddly shaped districts -- but no serious opponents.

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 head.

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.

''If 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 same population.

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 engineering.

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 records.

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.

The repercussions 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 elections.

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.

With fewer 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.

The bottom 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.''

Valery 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.

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Copyright 2002 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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