Change may be in the wind, but incumbents still rule

Posted: Oct 19, 2006 12:01 AM
Change may be in the wind, but incumbents still rule

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.

For example: "The number of districts carried by a presidential candidate of one party and a congressional candidate of the other has declined sharply (from 148 in 1988 to 59 in 2004)," he pointed out.

"Clever people," with the help of sophisticated computer programming, detailed census tracts and voter data, "as long as they kept the districts almost equal in population, can do almost anything," Ornstein told me.

"What you have is the vast majority of members, no matter how strong the wind is blowing, no matter how much the public desires change, they are immune from it," he said. "The framers of the Constitution expected that voters would choose their representatives, not that representatives would choose their voters."

But Congress is not always immune from a big political wave, as we have seen throughout modern American elections, especially in recent decades: the Reagan-led GOP resurgence in the Senate in 1980 and the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.

Moreover, even with the relatively small universe of 30 to 40 competitive House seats, that is more than enough to win the 15 needed to topple the Republicans from power on Nov. 7.

The perfectly proper political reality governing our congressional elections is that the two parties are pretty much at parity with one another, so control of a closely divided House can be moved from one party to the other with the shift of a relatively few number of seats. That's politics.

Right now, it appears the Democrats will likely take control of the House, unless there is a major shift in the mood of the electorate. And the GOP's hold on the Senate is looking shaky at best, too.

But this year's election does not necessarily suggest a long reign of power for the Democrats. Census analysts say the population shifts from the more liberal Northeast and Midwest to the more conservative South and West will continue into the next decade and beyond.

What this trend means is that Northern Democrats will lose House seats and Republicans will likely gain seats after the 2010 census. Nothing that will happen in this year's election is going to stop this mass migration in political power to the country's more GOP-friendly Sunbelt.