Wall Street Journal
House Incumbents Tap
Census,Software to Get a
Lock on Seats
By John Harwood
The battle for
control of Congress isn't coming to California this year. Or to many
To understand why, take a spin along
Huntington Drive outside Los Angeles, to where the black and Latino
shopping district of solidly Democratic South Pasadena gives way to
businesses such as Polo Tours and Tweed Financial Services. This is
the San Marino area, home to people who vote Republican about as
predictably as sunrise. It's also part of the congressional district
that elected Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff.
So when California
state legislators undertook the post-census ritual of remapping
districts, Mr. Schiff's political allies did him a favor. They
sliced San Marino out of his district and gave it to Republican Rep.
David Dreier. The simple stroke made Mr. Schiff's district more
safely Democratic and Mr. Dreier's more safely Republican. Both
incumbents are expected to win handily in November, as is every
other incumbent still seeking re-election in California; Rep. Gary
Condit lost a primary earlier this year.
The upshot: In a
year when the country seems almost evenly divided between Democrats
and Republicans, most members of Congress aren't preparing for a
tough fight in the midterm election. There's little doubt about the
outcome of any of the 53 House races in the nation's largest and
most populous state. And the same is true "all over the country,"
says Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, leader of the House GOP's effort to
retain its majority in November.
Thanks to the play-it-safe
strategies of Republicans and Democrats alike, and to the
sophisticated technology now used in redistricting, competition is
being squeezed out of the House -- with huge consequences.
Democrats will have difficulty picking up the additional six
seats they need to regain a House majority. Republicans probably
won't significantly expand their majority. That practically ensures
that the chamber will remain riven by partisan division for the last
two years of Mr. Bush's term, making compromise more elusive on
tough issues. The process also lines up the parties with their
ideological extremes, leaving underrepresented the roughly 50% of
the electorate that stands nearer the political center.
the past, the decennial process of redistricting that follows the
census fostered challenges to the status quo. This time it is
leaving the status quo more deeply entrenched. Out of 435 House
districts, political handicapper Charlie Cook rates only 11 as
"toss-up" contests that either side could just as easily win. At
this time 10 years ago, he rated four times as many that way.
There isn't a single toss-up race in such major states as
Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, New Jersey or New York. Not even
Florida -- symbol of the nation's 50-50 political split since the
2000 campaign -- has a race where the Republican and Democratic
candidates are given equal chances of winning.
consequence of the small number of competitive races is that
political parties and allied interest groups flood those races with
money. In the process, notes congressional scholar Thomas Mann of
the Brookings Institution, parties neglect cultivating challengers
to a broader range of House incumbents.
Congressional politics has been declining for years. Long gone are
the big partisan lurches that marked late-19th-century and
early-20th-century House elections, such as the 120-seat Republican
gain of 1894. After 40 consecutive years of Democratic control,
Republicans exploited economic anxieties, the missteps of the
Clinton White House and the political realignment of white
Southerners to gain power by picking up 52 seats in the House in
But that spurt of volatility faded, and incumbents
have continued to win more than 90% of their attempts at
re-election. In the first 14 House elections after World War II, one
party or another gained an average of 27 seats. In the past 14
elections, the average switch was 16 seats.
Part of the
explanation lies in House members' growing desire to make long-term
careers in politics, and their increasing skill in using the tools
of office to do so. But part of it also stems from the ability of
Republican and Democratic tacticians to turn technology to their
years ago, sophisticated computer-software packages have allowed
partisan map-makers to match new census data with their own files on
neighborhoods' voting histories -- down to the level of individual
blocks. That lets them design districts with predictable partisan
preferences. Though redistricting plans can be challenged on
constitutional grounds, courts have recognized that the processes
that produce them are inherently political.
around, faster and cheaper computers have allowed more people with
an interest in the outcome -- such as House incumbents -- to use
that software for their own benefit.
"There's a technology
in the redistricting process that didn't exist 40 or 50 years ago,"
says Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor who now serves as the
GOP's national chairman.
Overall, the near-even split in the
House -- currently composed of 222 Republicans, 211 Democrats and
two independents -- mirrors the nation's divided electorate. But the
two main parties' House caucuses aren't so representative. Each
caucus is full of reliable partisans elected from districts tilted
toward one party or the other. The roughly 50% of the electorate who
consider themselves aligned with either party are well-represented
in the conservative-dominated Republican caucus and the
liberal-dominated Democratic caucus. But the 50% of Americans who
occupy the political middle ground have fewer voices on Capitol
Moreover, staunch GOP partisans feel little political
compromise with their equally staunch
Democraticcounterparts. That sort of polarization contributes to
legislative stalemate on issues such as legal reform, energy policy
and extending insurance coverage on prescription drugs through the
private market or Medicare. Polarization also blunts many lawmakers'
interest in reaching out to the sort of swing voters who loom large in presidential contests, and whose backing could help
forge majority governing coalitions.
For instance, Hispanic voters represent a key
target for President Bush for his 2004 re-election hopes. But when
Republican House candidates scored poorly in a recent national poll
of Hispanics, one top GOP strategist shrugged off the result as
inconsequential. The reason: The way district lines are drawn, there
are very few districts where Republican House candidates must attract Hispanic votes to win.
"The best representation," concludes Rep. Schiff of
California, "comes out of the most marginal districts," where
lawmakers must appeal to voters from both parties, rather than just
to Democrats or Republicans.
Even some partisans deeply involved in the 2002
campaign feel uneasy over the stasis the process has produced. In
his role as National Republican Congressional Committee chairman,
Mr. Davis likes the way redistricting worked out because it "limits
the opportunities" of Democrats. But as a moderate Republican, he
worries that it prevents the emergence of like-minded centrists
within his party. One example: More staunchly Republican districts tend to elevate
opponents of abortion, who in turn sometimes help position the party
at odds with moderate voters nationally.
The designs of
political map-makers can ultimately be overwhelmed by demographic
shifts. Republican Rep. Robert Dornan of California was re-elected
five times in the traditional GOP bastion of Orange County, Calif.
-- until a sustained influx of Hispanic immigrants led to his
surprise defeat by Democrat Loretta Sanchez in 1996.
now, the well-fortified trenches that both parties have dug in House
elections seem likely to hold. Some Republicans briefly entertained
dreams that President Bush's post-Sept. 11 popularity could help
them make a decisive breakthrough. But polls suggest that normal
partisan patterns are returning, and there is little that could
break up such alignments.
"A depression would do it," notes
Gary Jacobson, a scholar of Congressional politics at the University
of California at San Diego. Meanwhile, he frets that the situation
makes it difficult for lawmakers in Washington to govern and for
voters at home to assign responsibility, since the House and Senate
are controlled by different parties.
Incumbents argue that the system works fine.
Mr. Dreier, the Republican lawmaker who spearheaded GOP
redistricting efforts in California, says the specter of ideological
warfare on the House floor is often exaggerated. And he joins his
Democratic counterpart, Rep. Howard Berman, in citing an
underappreciated benefit of the safety most
incumbents enjoy: less need for fund-raising and political
"If every incumbent is spending every waking
moment thinking about how to survive a tough re-election campaign,
the process of democracy will be hurt," explains Mr. Berman, who is
now serving his 10th House term. "You'd have politicians consumed
with raising money all the time, passing up the chance to think
There's little doubt that he can stay there a
good while longer. In the California legislature's new redistricting
plan, Rep. Berman will represent an electorate that cast some 70% of
its votes in 2000 for Mr. Gore.
In a series of other nips and tucks,
California's top partisan tacticians firmed up several other
members' districts with the political equivalent of plastic surgery.
Rancho Palos Verdes, an affluent coastal community in Los Angeles
County that made Democratic Rep. Jane Harman's vote totals sag, was
sliced from her district and packed into the adjacent district of
Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher. Republican
Rep. Elton Gallegly handed over Democratic neighborhoods of Oxnard
and Ventura that strengthened his Democratic neighbor Lois Capps,
while Rep. Capps surrendered Republican parts of Santa Barbara to
was a certain amount of creativity involved," chuckles Thomas
Hofeller, chief of redistricting at the Republican National
Committee in Washington. In his dimly lit office, Mr. Hofeller
clicks through detailed, color-coded maps displayed on his computer
screen. Comparing the old district lines to the new ones, he dubs
the result "a sweetheart gerrymander."
Some partisans on
both sides grumble that it's a little too sweet. If Republicans had
fought harder in the California Legislature, gripes former GOP Gov.
Pete Wilson, they might have carved out the chance to win more than
the 20 House seats they're projected to win under this plan.
Nonsense, replies Mr. Dreier. Considering that Democrats
control both the legislature and the California governorship, he
argues that preserving all 20 Republicans seats was a triumph. "I'm
not only not embarrassed about it, I'm extremely proud," he says.
Mr. Berman makes precisely the opposite argument in
rejecting complaints from Democrats outside California that the
state's congressional redistricting doesn't capitalize on the
party's ascendancy in the state. The projected 33-20 Democratic
edge, he says, is even more lopsidedly Democratic than the work of
art the party produced to carve up Republicans following the 1980
"Without this plan, it would have been much more
difficult for Democrats to win back the House," Mr. Berman says.
Complaints that Democrats could have created three more winnable
seats, he says, come largely from political consultants bemoaning
the lack of House campaign business in the state.
Mr. Schiff certainly is breathing a sigh of
relief. He raised and spent about $4 million to win his hard-fought
2000 challenge to incumbent Rep. James Rogan, who had become a folk
hero to Republicans after serving as one of the managers of
President Clinton's impeachment in 1998. The new district in which
Mr. Schiff will seek a second term is significantly more Democratic
than his old one, which means he won't have to fight nearly so hard this time.
could have been more aggressive," acknowledges Mr. Schiff. But
"overall, the judgment was made that it was more productive for
Democrats to strengthen marginal Democrats than to create new
Democrats." That's why Mr. Schiff soon will be representing the
residents of Temple City, who backed Mr. Gore in 2000, but won't be
representing the upscale denizens of San Marino. Mr. Schiff insists
he'd have been content to leave his old district lines alone, but
his dismal 31% showing against Mr. Rogan in that community in 2000
made the change an easy call for Democratic strategists.
Dreier, who has exchanged in the reapportionment process a district
Gore carried for one Bush carried, makes no bones about welcoming
his new electoral cushion. "I'm happy to have San Marino," he says.