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Wall Street Journal

House Incumbents Tap Census,Software to Get a Lock on Seats
By John Harwood
June 19, 2002

The battle for control of Congress isn't coming to California this year. Or to many other states.

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.

In 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.

One 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.

Competition in 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 1994.

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 advantage.

Computer-Aided Designs

Beginning 10 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.

This time 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 Hill.

Moreover, staunch GOP partisans feel little political pressure to
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.

Yet for 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 maneuvering.

"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 about issues."

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 Mr. Gallegly.

'Sweetheart Gerrymander'

"There 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 Census.

"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.

"California 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.

Mr. 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.

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