Districts ensure congressional upsets are rare events

Where have you gone Jim Jontz, Jill Long, Frank McCloskey, John Brademas, John Hiler, Baron Hill, Mike Sodrel, John Hostettler and Chris Chocola? These are names on the list of Hoosier members of Congress who ended their political careers in defeat over the past three decades.

Unless there are extraordinary political waves, the way Indiana’s electoral process is trending, the congressional upset of the future could become a rare event. Earlier this month, the Cook Political Report issued the 2017 version of the Cook Partisan Index and there are only two Indiana districts in the single digit range. U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky’s 1st Congressional District is +8 Democratic, and U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks’ 5th CD is +9 Republican. The previous competitive district, U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski’s 2nd CD, went from a +6 Republican in 2014 to a +11 Republican this year.

Remember the Bloody 8th? It’s not so bloody anymore. When Cook came out with its first index in 1998, U.S. Rep. Hostettler, who had upset Democrat McCloskey four years prior, sat in a +2.5 Republican district. It was +8 Republican in 2014 and is now a +15 Republican district today.

The Republican illusion is that the current maps are compact, hue to county lines and keep community of interests intact. A more competitive way to draw districts would be to make a pie with the center in Indianapolis, and districts radiating out.

“The most striking House statistic in the last 20 years may be the decline of competitive districts, places where members have the greatest political incentives to work on a bipartisan basis,” writes David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. “In 1998, our Partisan Voter Index scored 164 districts between D+5 and R+5, more than a third of the House, and greater than both the number of strongly Democratic and strongly Republican seats.”

In the Hoosier context, in 1998 Cook rated four of our 10 districts in or close to that range: Democrat Rep. Tim Roemer’s CD3 at +5.5 Republican; Hostettler’s CD8 at +2.5 Republican; Democrat Rep. Lee Hamilton’s 9th at +3.2 Republican; and Democrat Rep. Julia Carson’s 10th at +4.4 Democrat.

Wasserman continues, “After the hyper-polarized 2016 election, there are only 72 districts between D+5 and R+5 — less than one-sixth of the House and a 56 percent decline since 1997. This also represents a 20 percent decline from just four years ago, when there were 90 swing seats.”

So you wonder why there is inertia and gridlock in Washington? Because the districts are more polarized in 2011. Members of Congress hue to the right and left to avoid the most likely path to upset, which is getting primaried. It was different with the maps drawn in 2001.

In 2010, Republican Todd Young defeated Rep. Baron Hill 52-42 percent; Republican Larry Bucshon defeated State Rep. Trent Van Haaften in a seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth 57-37 percent (who replaced Evan Bayh when he abruptly pulled out of the U.S. Senate race); and U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly staved off Republican Jackie Walorski 48.2 to 46.8 percent in what was the tea party wave election.

In 2006, Rep. Chocola lost to Donnelly 54-46 percent, Ellsworth upset Hostettler 61-39 percent, and Hill returned to the 9th CD seat he lost two years earlier, defeating Rep. Mike Sodrel 50-45 percent.

In 2002, there were three tight races, with Hostettler holding off Bryan Hartke 51-46 percent, Hill defeating Sodrel 51-46 percent, and Chocola defeating Jill Long Thompson 50-46 percent.

Wasserman explains, “Of the 92 ‘swing seats’ that have vanished since 1997, 83 percent of the decline has resulted from natural geographic sorting of the electorate from election to election, while only 17 percent of the decline has resulted from changes to district boundaries.”

Between 1992 and 2016, the number of extreme landslide counties — those decided by margins exceeding 50 percentage points — exploded from 93 to 1,196, or over a third of the nation’s counties. Between 1992 and 2016, the share of voters living in extreme landslide counties quintupled from 4 to 21 percent.

Wasserman, notes the demographic sorting. “If you feel like you hardly know anyone who disagrees with you about Trump, you’re not alone; chances are the election was a landslide in your backyard. More than 61 percent of voters cast ballots in counties that gave either Clinton or Trump at least 60 percent of the major-party vote last November. That’s up from 50 percent of voters who lived in such counties in 2012 and 39 percent in 1992, an accelerating trend that confirms that America’s political fabric, geographically, is tearing apart.”

Senate President Pro Tempore David Long has prevented legislation to be heard on the topic of an independent redistricting commission. Yet, Long has been an advocate for an Article V Constitutional Convention, complaining that Washington is too polarized to deal with issues such as a balanced budget amendment or immigration reform.

The emphatic Republican legislative majorities have achieved a party goal. The Pyrrhic victory is because the GOP and Democrats have retreated into extreme enclaves, no one can govern. There is no compromise. The blue dog Democrat and moderate Republican are virtually extinct. Empires that can no longer bargain and compromise are ones with short life spans.

BRIAN HOWEY is publisher of the Howey Political Report, a weekly briefing on Indiana politics. Contact him at 317-506-0883 or at howeypolitics.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *