Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Missing from the millions of words spoken and written about the battle for control of Congress is the contradictory political reality that most lawmakers will be returned to office next year.

Of the 435 members in the House, about 380 or more lawmakers will be re-elected, and very possibly closer to 400 -- most by large majorities.

This may come as a shock to those who follow the ups and downs of the polls, which show about 70 percent of Americans do not like this Congress, along with voter-preference surveys showing Americans intend to vote against the Republican majority that presently controls the House.

But these polls also show that 60 percent or more of the voters not only like their own representative but say they will vote to send him or her back to Washington for another two years. Such is the love-hate relationship that Americans have for Congress. They disapprove of the institution and the job it's doing but support their own members by significant margins.

Estimates of the number of lawmakers who face serious competition vary. A seat-by-seat analysis by Congressional Quarterly said a total of 62 members, 48 of them Republicans, "range from very to somewhat competitive." rated 354 seats, 81 percent of the House, as "safe for the incumbent party." Notably, 55 House members have no major party opposition, CQ found.

Congressional elections analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute put the number of safe seats at around 380 but said it could rise to 400 or so, leaving about 30 or more toss-up races that will decide who will be in charge of the House next year.

Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes the Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks and handicaps all of the races, said there are at most 40 House races that he called pure toss-ups or that leaned or tilted one way or the other.

The reason why there are so few competitive races is largely because the two parties have designed their congressional district lines to make them that way, and they've gotten more skillful at it with each succeeding decade.

"The past five House elections have produced historically low party seat switches, incumbent defeats and net party gains," said Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

"As a consequence of gerrymandering, residential mobility and stronger party-line voting in the electorate, the partisan makeup of House districts has become more lopsided, with many safe Republican and Democratic districts and very few competitive ones," Mann said in a critical analysis of congressional election trends.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.