Blogs > Cliopatria > The Changing Nature of Congress

Nov 7, 2004 7:31 pm

The Changing Nature of Congress

Both parties deemed last Tuesday’s election the most important of a generation, and I see no reason not to take them at their word. Two historically significant outcomes from the 2004 election regarding Congress:

1.) The lack of competition in House races is a crisis of American democracy. Excluding the Texas gerrymander, last Tuesday three incumbent congressmen (two Republicans, one Democrat) were defeated; three more open seats changed parties (two previously held by a Republican, one by a Democrat). In only 12 other contests (CA 20, CO 4, CT 2, CT 4, IN 2, IN 8, MN 6, MO 3, NY 29, OR 5, SD AL, PA 6) did the winner prevail by less than 10 percentage points. (Two seats in Louisiana remain to be decided.) This outcome occurred at a time when a majority of voters believed that the country was on the wrong track and the country is mired in a war that (regardless of one’s opinions on its merits) clearly has not gone as the administration promised.

To put these totals in perspective: more Senate seats changed party control than House contests.

The causes: the astronomical costs of House races certainly is key—parties find it more prudent to invest their dollars in races for the Senate, where the winner will be 1 of 100 rather than 1 of 435 and will enter a body where one individual can make more of a difference. More important, however, as I have mentioned before, is the increasingly sophisticated use of technology in House redistricting. We heard a lot about the Texas gerrymander, but at least, on one level, Tom DeLay’s basic argument made sense: Texas, as a Republican state, should have a majority Republican House delegation. In this sense, the more outrageous situation exists in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states redistricted under the control of GOP governors and legislatures but which have each voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections. Last Tuesday, Michigan sustained its party House breakdown of 9 Republicans and 6 Democrats, with the most closely challenged Republican winning by 16 points. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, sustained its party House breakdown of 12 Republicans and 7 Democrats, with only one Republican winning by less than 12 points.

In short, we’re increasingly moving toward a system where mapmakers can draw safe House districts impervious to all but the strongest national partisan tide. There’s every reason to believe that both parties will follow the example of Texas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2012—and perhaps start applying this technology to state legislative boundaries as well. Any resident of New York can tell you about the effects of non-competitive state legislative elections on the health of government.

One hundred years ago, the country faced a similar crisis, as state legislatures created a Senate described as a “millionaire’s club.” The response: a constitutional amendment for direct election of senators. The time has come for a constitutional amendment requiring House districts to be drawn by nonpartisan commissions.

2.) The GOP Senate majority is unlikely to vanish any time soon. The Republicans last had a 10-seat majority in 1983, after Republican Dan Evans captured the seat of the late Washington Democrat Henry Jackson in a special election. Three years later, the Democrats had a majority. So it’s certainly possible to come back from a 10-seat deficit.

This year’s contests, however, intensified an alarming trend for Democrats, in that more and more states are simply becoming non-competitive for the party in Senate races. The South Dakota election received the most national attention, but the most historically significant contests occurred in Alaska, South Carolina, and Oklahoma. In Alaska, Republicans were burdened with a candidate, Lisa Murkowski, appointed by her father, the state’s unpopular governor, to a Senate vacancy. In South Carolina, Republican Jim DeMint ran an unabashedly homophobic campaign and saw his central economic initiative (replacing the income tax with a national sales tax) shredded by the Democratic nominee. In Oklahoma, Tom Coburn rivaled Alan Keyes for this year’s looniest Senate candidate. In short, a Democratic operative could not have picked more inviting targets against which to run.

Moreover, in all three states, the Democrats nominated dream candidates—appealing centrists with solid track records. And yet, with the Republicans nominating the weakest possible candidates and the Democrats offering their strongest possible challengers, the Republican prevailed with ease in each state. It’s hard to imagine how a Democratic Senate candidate in the foreseeable future could win a race in any of these three states.

There are, in fact, now a dozen states that seem out of play for Senate Democratic candidates: Wyoming (last elected a Democratic senator in 1970); Utah (ditto); Idaho (1974); Texas (1988); Kansas (1932); Mississippi (1982); Alabama (1990); Georgia (2000—Zell Miller); and Virginia (1988), along with OK, AK, and SC. Compare that to the number of states where any Democratic Senate candidate begins as a prohibitive favorite: Hawaii (last elected a Republican senator in 1970); Massachusetts (1972); New Jersey (1978); Maryland (1980); Connecticut (1982); and, perhaps, Illinois, although it did elect Republican Peter Fitzgerald in 1998. (West Virginia might have been on this list five years ago, but clearly cannot be put there now.)

Republicans therefore start the quest for a Senate majority with 24 unassailable Senate seats, Democrats with only 12. So to get to 51, the GOP needs to capture only 27 of the 64 seats (42%) in competitive states, while the Democrats need 39 of the 64 (61%).

Compounding the Democrats’ need to take more of the competitive contests is what could be called the Maine/Pennsylvania problem: states that lean Democratic are far more likely to elect Republican senators than states that lean Republican are likely to send Democrats to the Senate. Maine and Pennsylvania both have voted Democratic for President in the last four elections; both also currently have Democratic governors. Yet both also have all-Republican Senate delegations. Since Republican Bill Cohen ousted Democrat William Hathaway in Maine’s 1978 Senate election, Republicans have won 7 of the 9 Senate contests in the Pine Tree State. In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, a Democrat hasn’t won a regularly scheduled Senate election since 1962. (Harris Wofford did win a special election in 1991, but was then ousted in 1994.) As states like South Carolina, Georgia, and Oklahoma adopt a position of rejecting all Democratic Senate candidates because of their party level, Democrats’ inability to win states such as Maine and Pennsylvania becomes very pressing.

The bottom line: despite signs of the current Congress intending to pursue a more aggressively conservative agenda than a majority of the American people probably would prefer, there’s little reason to assume that the GOP will lose control of Congress any time soon.

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Robert KC Johnson - 11/9/2004

On the sales tax issue, my point wasn't so much on the policy merits of the idea as the political effects--it's extremely rare in any Senate race to see a Democrat so thoroughly dominate the tax issue.

Beyond DeMint's public anti-gay comments, was an email stating, “Come on farg, give this dike a reply.”
Ginny Allen, director of operations for Congressman Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) campaign for U.S. Senate, in an e-mail she intended to send to another campaign staffer nicknamed “farg”; instead the e-mail went as a reply to Lisa Hall, chair of a local gay group, who had asked for a meeting with DeMint (Associated Press, Sept. 28) The issue here wasn't that being anti-gay isn't a winner in SC--it is. But DeMint was so blatant about it that he was twice forced to apologize for raising an issue that should have worked exclusively to his advantage.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/9/2004

Which explains a lot about the Bush administration's willingness to consider it...

Ralph E. Luker - 11/9/2004

Professor Campbell,
I don't see how your point about Tenenbaum's commercials shows that she's just a liar like all the rest of them. A sales tax is a very regressive tax and proposing it as a replacement for the income tax is both regressive and a move on one source of local or state tax revenue.

Robert L. Campbell - 11/9/2004


I agree with the main theme of your post--the need to get rid of gerrymandering. Massive cuts in congressional staffs have also been proposed as a way of reducing the advantages of incumbency.

But as a resident of South Carolina, I have to take issue with your characterization of DeMint vs. Tenenbaum.

You said:

In South Carolina, Republican Jim DeMint ran an unabashedly homophobic campaign and saw his central economic initiative (replacing the income tax with a national sales tax) shredded by the Democratic nominee...

My response:

Yes, DeMint made a remark in a televised debate that gays shouldn't be allowed to teach in public schools...then suggested a further prohbition against unmarried mothers teaching in public schools. He later apologized, though perhaps he intended to retract only the second half of the remark.

You're forgetting, though, that this is South Carolina. Being stridently anti-gay may hurt a candidate for local office in Greenville or Charleston, where such attitudes have come to be seen as bad for business. But state-wide, in such a socially conservative state? You've got to be kidding! In SC Democrats running for office have been known to make anti-gay remarks (does anyone remember Alex Saunders' remark about Rudy Giuliani, of all people, in a 2002 debate with Lindsay Graham?). And of course Tenenbaum declared her own opposition to gay marriage. (On that one, you could say she was just taking her cue from the top of the Democratic ticket.)

As for DeMint's sales tax proposal being "shredded," here's what happened. In September, Tenenbaum started ridiculing it in commercials showing baffled shoppers discovering big loud 23% stickers on everything they wanted to buy. These commercials ran until the week before the election and never mentioned that the sales tax was intended to replace the income tax. The commercials probably did bite into DeMint's support (he ran about 4% behind Dubya in what has become a heavily Republican state), but they convinced other voters that Tenenbaum, who up to then had been perceived as much nicer than the average politician, was as big a liar as the rest of them.

Two other factors that might be relevant, though I would not bank on their impact on the average SC voter: DeMint had been the most pro-free trade Congressman in the SC delegation, while Tenenbaum and the Democratic 527s took a hard-core protectionist position. Tenenbaum is the State Superintendent of Education, in a state whose public school system, outside of an occasional college town or wealthy suburb, is one of the very worst in the country. Tenenbaum cannot be blamed for a tradition of lousy public schools that stretches back well over a century, but her insistence that the government school monopoly must be preserved above all else has not led to significant improvements the schools--nor is it likely to.

The real wowsers in SC Republican politics are people like ex-Governor David Beasley and ex-Attorney General Charlie Condon, both of whom DeMint defeated in the primaries.

Robert Campbell

Robert KC Johnson - 11/8/2004

I agree that nonpartisan redistricting isn't a panacea, and the relative amount of competitive elections has declined over time. Incumbents still have considerable advantages--i.e, fundraising, name recognition, etc. I'm not sure that any system could be designed to avoid advantages for incumbents in the current situation (nor am I sure that such a system would be desirable). The old stand-by, of course, was public financing of campaigns, but in the age of 527's, that's no longer pratical. Since I see no way to keep big money out of politics, we have to do what we can to mitigate its effects.

Iowa 2002 is a pretty good example of what I would consider ideal. Yes, in 2002 four incumbents were re-elected, and the 5th district, as drawn, was heavily Republican--but it would have to be, since western Iowa is heavily Republican. Even though the four incumbents were re-elected, however, all four were in competitive races--a percentage unmatched in any state in the country in 2002. Even this year, the incumbents' percentages in Iowa were somewhat lower (55, 59, 55, 61, 63) than elsewhere in the country, especially since only one challenger (Stan Thompson in the 3rd) was considered viable.

Even with nonpartisan redistricting, we're going to have districts that tilt heavily toward one or the other party--it's tough to draw any district on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that's not heavily Democratic. But the system to which we're moving is one in which we'll see fewer and fewer competitive districts, even in redistricting years where the powers of incumbency often are at their weakest.

Kirk W. Johnson - 11/8/2004

Forgot to add a link to the CATO report:

Kirk W. Johnson - 11/8/2004

Having just worked on a [losing] Congressional campaign against Republican incumbent Tom Latham in Iowa's 4th district, it'd much easier to see the priviliges of incumbency.

Iowa has employed nonpartisan redistricting, but it has still resulted in republican-safe areas (such as the 5th district in the northwest). The make-up of the district I was working in was around 35% republican, 33% democrat, and 31% non-party. Latham was sent back for his sixth term, along with the other incumbents - some of whom have been in around 30 years.

One of the pieces I came across when I was working on a post at my own blog earlier this year was a 1994 CATO journal piece by Stephen Erickson, which assesses incumbency from 1790-1994.

"The number of House members who sought reelection and won after 1800 declined over the course of the next half century as the era of citizen government reached its height. Incumbents who chose to run again were 95 percent successful at the beginning of the century, when old hierarchical and deferential social structures remained in place. But in the election of 1842 the survival rate of incumbents bottomed out at 64 percent. That same year so many incumbents chose not to run for reelection that Congress experienced a 76-percent turnover. By the 1840s, the reelection rate for incumbents attempting to maintain office settled into an average range where 20 to 30 percent regularly went down to defeat. This attrition rate due to defeat continued almost up until 1900. Adding in voluntary retirements, the total turnover rate in Congress averaged more than 50 percent per election between 1840 and 1880."

Erickson points to the decline of turnover which started around 1958:

"While the era of safe seats undermined marginal districts, part of an incumbent's safety arose from a natural, as well as an artificial, distribution of regional interests. Incumbents were safe because more often than not, they represented their constituent's interests, even if those constituencies were subject to some manipulation. Furthermore, in times of crisis, during the Great Depression, for example, more than one-third of the U.S. Congress might fail to be reelected. Yet by 1960, the power of incumbency itself, as distinct from a constituency manipulated to be homogeneous, began to climb. Burgeoning congressional staffs, massive use of the franking privilege, growing incumbent campaign war chests, mass media, and expanding federal power combined to provide incumbent members of Congress with advantages that made them almost immune to defeat."

What I find most distressing about 2004, as a 24-year-old, is that the only thing that appears to outrage Americans anymore is what happens in the bedroom. In Illinois, a solid republican candidate Jack Ryan dropped out because it was made known that he had asked his wife to go to a sex club with him. They didn't even go! I didn't agree with Ryan, but the race would have been vastly preferable to Obama-Keyes.

We care less about a war waged under false pretenses than we do the possibility of two gays visiting each other in a hospital.

If Iraq doesn't bury a candidate, what will?

Brian Ulrich - 11/8/2004

Direct election of Senators. But you can also get a Constitutional amendment proposed in state conventions, IIRC. I ultimately think this will require long-term activism coupled with more open signs of corruption leading to reforms at the state level.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 11/8/2004

I agree the system is badly broken, but see little hope of it being repaired. First, some anecdotal evidence:

Since 2002, I have moved from one "safe" district to another. I liked old rep. Artur Davis, don't much care for my new rep. Spencer Bachus. Either way, I had no opportunity to vote for anyone else. Come to think of it, my rep. from Athens Georgia (I think it was John Linden) never faced any opposition when I was there either.

Second, can any one think of a Constitutional Amemdment that has passed despite the fact it went directly against the interests of a plurality of Congressional representatives?

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/8/2004

I concur. It's an arduous road, but I think this is an important reform and that, though it may take more than a decade, it is winnable.

Parallel thought. Could supersafe districts actually lower political activism (and maybe even stridentness?) in the long run? I mean, if our guy or gal's fate is written in stone, then "what me worry?"

Jonathan Dresner - 11/7/2004

I second your call for non-partisan districting (I used to live in Iowa, where it works quite well), but it'll probably take the courts to ram it through. I don't know that you could get Congress to pass it as an amendment, even if you could get the various state houses to push it.