‘Taking voters out of the equation’: how parties kill competition
WASHINGTON — The number of competitive congressional districts is on course to dip near — and possibly below — the lowest level in at least three decades, as Republicans and Democrats draw new political maps designed to ensure that the vast majority of House races are over before the general election begins.
With two-thirds of the new limits set, mapmakers are on track to attract fewer than 40 seats – out of 435 – that are considered competitive based on the results of the 2020 presidential election, according to an analysis of election data. from the New York Times. Ten years ago, that number was 73.
As the exact size of the battlefield still looms, the sharp drop in competition for House seats is the latest ominous sign of dysfunction in the US political system, already grappling with a plague of misinformation and growing mistrust in with regard to the elections. The lack of competition in general elections can deepen the ideological divide between parties, leading to hardened deadlocks over legislation and the alienation of voters from the political process.
“The reduction in competitive seats is a tragedy,” said former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., who is chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “We end up with an impasse, we end up with no progress and we end up with a population that looks at our legislatures and has the feeling that nothing is being done.” He added: “This impasse leads to cynicism about this whole process.”
Both Republicans and Democrats are responsible for adding to the count of safe seats. Over the decades, parties have skillfully used the redistricting process to create constituencies dominated by one party’s voters or to bolster incumbents.
It remains unclear which party will ultimately benefit the most from this year’s bumper crop of safe seats, or whether President Biden’s declining approval ratings could endanger Democrats whose districts have not been deemed competitive. Republicans control the mapping for more than twice as many districts as Democrats, leaving many GOP members to believe the party can regain a majority in the House after four years of Democratic control largely by attracting favorable seats.
But Democrats have used their power to gerrymand more aggressively than expected. In New York, for example, the Democratic-controlled legislature on Wednesday approved a map that gives the party a strong chance of toppling up to three House seats currently held by Republicans.
That left Republicans and Democrats essentially tied, with two big unknowns hanging in the balance: Florida’s 28 seats, increasingly the subject of Republican infighting, are still up in the air and several court cases in other States could send lawmakers back to the drawing board.
“New York Democrats are gerrymandering like the House depends on it,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the party’s main mapping organization. “Republican lawmakers shouldn’t be afraid to legally exercise their political advantage where they have control.”
New York’s new map doesn’t just set Democrats up to win more seats, it also eliminates competitive districts. In 2020, there were four districts where Mr. Biden and former President Donald J. Trump were within five percentage points. There are none in the new map. Even the reconfigured neighborhood that stretches from Republican-dominated Staten Island to Democratic Brooklyn neighborhoods is now, on paper at least, Democrat-friendly territory.
Understand redistricting and gerrymandering
Without this competition from outside the party, many politicians begin to see that the greatest threat to their careers comes from within.
“When I was a congressman, most members woke up worried about a general election,” said former Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who led the House Democrats’ campaign committee last year. recut cycle. “Now they wake up worried about a main opponent.”
Mr Israel, who left Congress in 2017 and now owns a bookstore on Long Island, recalled Republicans telling him they would like to vote for Democratic priorities like gun control but feared a backlash from their party base. House Democrats, Israel said, would like to address issues like Social Security and Medicare reform, but understand that would draw a strong primary challenge from the left wing of the government. left.
Republicans argue redistricting isn’t fate: The political climate matters, and more races will become competitive if inflation, the lingering pandemic or other issues continue to sour voters on the Democratic leadership.
But the much larger number of constituencies drawn to be extremely safe for a party is likely to limit the number of seats that will flip – even in a so-called wave election.
“Parties are contributing to more and more one-party ridings and taking voters out of the equation,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who led the House Republicans’ campaign arm during the redistricting cycle. of 2001. “November becomes a constitutional formality.”
In the 29 states where the maps have been completed and not thrown out of court, there are only 22 districts that Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump have won by five percentage points or less, according to data from the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.
At this point in the 2012 redistricting cycle, there were 44 districts defined as competitive based on the results of previous presidential elections. In the 1992 election, the margin between Bill Clinton and George HW Bush was less than five points in 108 congressional districts.
The phenomenon of parties using redistricting to gain an advantage is as old as the republic itself, but it has intensified in recent decades with more sophisticated technology and more detailed data on voter behavior. Americans with similar political views have clustered in distinct areas — Republicans in rural and peri-urban areas, Democrats in inner cities and suburbs. It’s a pattern that can make it difficult to create cohesive and competitive districts.
No state canceled the competition before the midterm elections like Texas. In the 2020 elections, there were 12 competitive districts in the state. After cutting, there is only one left.
How Redistricting Works in the United States
What is redistricting? It is the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. This happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect population changes.
Although Mr. Trump won 52% of the vote in Texas in 2020, Republicans are expected to win about 65%, or 24 of the state’s 38 congressional seats. (Texas won two seats in the reallocation after the 2020 census.)
Texas state lawmakers who control the redistricting have bolstered Republican incumbents including Reps. Dan Crenshaw, Beth Van Duyne and Michael McCaul, but in doing so have also drawn in safer districts for Democrats such as Reps. Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher.
“The fact that it will be more difficult for us to win seats in Congress is a big concern,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. “That’s not to say we think it’s not important to ride challengers, it’s just a reality that it’s going to be harder.”
Democrats did the same where they could. Oregon lawmakers have taken the state’s competitive fourth district and turned it into a seat that heavily favors their party.
The change has been so dramatic that Rep. Peter DeFazio, an 18-term Democrat, told reporters last year that he chose to retire because the district is now “won by another Democrat.”
Redrawing Mr. DeFazio’s district enraged Republicans in Oregon.
“Competitive districts benefit us all,” said Shelly Boshart Davis, an Oregon state representative who was the former Republican co-chair of the State House redistricting committee. “We hear from voters who feel marginalized all the time, saying, ‘I don’t feel like my voice is being heard.'”
A lack of competition has unintended consequences. Without a competitive race at the congressional level, local parties are deprived of an injection of money and organization. Candidates for Governor or Senate do not benefit from the opportunity to piggyback on the energy and activity at the grassroots level.
“Anyone racing statewide has to pull the cart entirely themselves because there are no competitive races going on locally,” said Matt Angle, a Democrat activist from Texas.
It can sometimes take years to see the full impact of eliminating a competitive district.
Ten years ago, Republicans in North Carolina took a battleground district in the western tip of the state and, cutting off a chunk of the liberal town of Asheville, turned it into a district that John McCain would have won by 18 points in the 2008 presidential election. Centrist incumbent, Heath Shuler, retired rather than seek re-election in a district he had little chance of winning.
He was replaced by Mark Meadows, who became a founding member of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus before becoming the last White House chief of staff for Mr. Trump and a central figure in Mr. Trump’s campaign to overthrow the 2020 presidential election.