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Iowa Puts Politicians Through the Paces

October 15, 2002|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

RUNNELLS, Iowa — Standing against a setting sun, Stan Thompson suffers all the usual indignities of a first-time candidate challenging a member of the U.S. House.

Many waiting in line for a recent Southeast Polk High School football game here mistake him for one of the ticket-takers and try to hand him their stubs. Most don't know whether he's a Democrat (no) or a Republican (yes).

For Thompson, the silver lining on this cloudless autumn evening is that his opponent, Democratic Rep. Leonard L. Boswell, is as much a blank slate for most of those at the game. Though Boswell has served three terms, the state's unique system for redrawing congressional seats wiped out his mostly rural southern Iowa district and forced him to move into a new district centered on urban Des Moines and suburbs such as this.

And that, as much as anything else, has made Thompson's challenge a competitive race in a year when competitive House races appear on the verge of extinction. Nor is Boswell the only incumbent facing a serious challenge in Iowa.

Largely because of the state's nonpartisan system for drawing congressional boundaries, either party has a genuine chance to win three of Iowa's House races this year -- with a fourth contest, though tilting toward the GOP, still having the potential for an upset.

That means Iowa, with five congressional districts, has more competitive races than California (one), Illinois (one) and New York (none), who have a combined 103 districts. Nationwide, operatives in both parties say that, absent some late developments, the outcome may be truly in doubt in as few as two dozen of the 435 House races.

This collapse of competition has been driven largely by the states' practice of drawing congressional districts that provide a lopsided advantage to one party or the other. That trend worries observers from all points on the political spectrum, who argue that it is denying most Americans the right to cast a meaningful ballot for the House.

"This is a real assault against democracy," said Steve Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative political group. "It is basically disenfranchising huge portions of voters."

It's probably not a coincidence that Iowa, the state where competition for the House is thriving this year, is also the state that has gone the furthest to take redistricting away from politicians.

"Iowa is 100% unique," said Tim Storey, a redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "If there is such an ideal as taking politics out of redistricting ... then Iowa moves closer to that ideal than any other state."

Every 10 years, states redraw their lines for House and state legislative districts to reflect population changes recorded in the U.S. census. In 43 states, including California, the lines are drawn by state legislators and approved by the governor.

Six other states draw their district lines with the help of independent commissions, though Storey notes that these are not entirely insulated from politics because the members typically have ties to the two major political parties.

Generally, the parties this year opted less to try to squeeze out new gains in congressional redistricting than to solidify the seats they already held. The result was a series of new maps that made districts more favorable for incumbents.

California is a typical case, where the only race among 53 House districts that analysts view as competitive is the one between Democrat Dennis Cardoza and Republican Dick Monteith in the Central Valley. They are battling for the seat held by Rep. Gary A. Condit of Ceres, who lost in the primary. "You had state legislators decide they would rather protect their clout in Washington [by solidifying incumbents]," said Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

More security for incumbents has translated into less competition for voters.

Iowa's redistricting system, though, minimizes the influence of incumbents -- and the political parties -- on the process. Under its approach -- adopted in the 1970s after the state Supreme Court threw out a redistricting map drawn by the state Legislature -- the district lines are drawn by the nonpartisan Legislative Service Bureau.

In drawing the maps, the law requires the bureau to avoid splitting counties, to keep the districts compact and to ensure they have equal population. Most important, it bars the bureau from considering any political information about the districts: voting history, partisan balance or where incumbents live.

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