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Safe Seats in House Keep True Races Rare

October 11, 2004|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

California has 53 seats in the House of Representatives, nearly twice as many as any other state, and every one is up for grabs in November -- technically.

In the increasingly predetermined reality of House races, just a single seat is really in dispute. And even that one, in the Central Valley, fails to make the cut when Democrats and Republicans list the truly competitive races in the nation.

California, often alone in its embrace of political novelty, is merely the most obvious example of a national phenomenon: congressional races that aren't races at all.

Just two of New York's 29 seats are considered competitive this year. In Florida, one out of 25 involves a race. Of the 435 seats in the House, experts from both parties say, only about 30 are in serious doubt.

" 'Coronations' is a good word when talking about congressional contests," said Rob Richie, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy. "We're getting back to the divine right of kings."

Several factors have led to the paucity of real contests, including the high cost of campaigns and the natural advantages of incumbency.

But those who study the subject say the most important driving forces are the careful, computer-aided redrawing of congressional districts and the willingness of incumbents from both major parties to embrace new political maps that help them retain their seats.

The redrawing of political boundaries, a time-honored but once-coarse craft involving considerable guesswork, has evolved in the computer age into a fine science.

Many people insist that they vote for the individual, not the party. But most voters are reliably partisan. Run their voting histories through a few computer programs, and the political demographics of a neighborhood can be calculated with accuracy, allowing creation of districts with stable Democratic or Republican majorities.

The results can be seen in election returns: A decade ago, 91% of House members battling for reelection won. That lack of competitive races seemed dramatic until the next cycle, in 1996, when 95% returned to the House. Since 1998, the figure has risen to above 98%.

And the victories are not close. Although the framers of the Constitution designed the House to be the most fluid branch of government, the one best suited to shift along with public opinion, the average winning candidate goes to Washington, D.C., with 70% of the vote.

Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, is among the many observers who argue that the carving of districts -- nipping off bits of cities and slicing off slivers of counties and otherwise ignoring what might seem obvious lines both governmental and geographic -- has helped exacerbate the sometimes bitter divisions between Republican, or red, areas of the country and Democratic blue areas.

With legislators at both the state and federal levels increasingly elected from noncompetitive districts, their toughest tests often come in primaries rather than the general election, Gans said. As a result, Democrats tend to move toward the left, Republicans to the right.

"If you want to know why we have such polarization in our politics, it's because of this," Gans said. The dearth of competitive congressional races "is the single most important procedural problem that needs to be addressed in our politics."

As much to demonstrate the preordained nature of congressional races as to guide voters, the Center for Voting and Democracy has taken to predicting outcomes based primarily on the partisan divide in a district. The center has made 1,200 predictions over the last several years. It has been wrong once.

Not all believe that's such a serious problem.

"When we had all of these cross-party votes in Congress ... people complained about no clear party positions. We had Southern Democrats, liberal Republicans," said UC San Diego political scientist Samuel Popkin. "Now we've sorted it out, just the way people used to want it, with responsible parties."

People who blame redistricting for the sometimes sour tone of modern politics are reaching for an overly simplistic explanation, Popkin said. "After 1988, people blamed negative advertising for all the problems in civic America. Now it's congressional redistricting," he said.

And although many civic activists decry the decline in competitive races, voters on the whole seem less concerned.

Ted Costa, the longtime California activist who helped push the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis, circulated signatures this year in a so-far unsuccessful effort for a ballot initiative that would strip the Legislature of its power to draw district lines.

Costa compares congressional races to a novelty shop flyswatter that comes with a tiny hole in its mesh and the words, "Give the fly a sporting chance."

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