Amy Walter '91
House Editor, The Cook Political Report
"I'm looking at a playing field that is smaller than I have seen since I started doing this. And I'm seeing that there are very few [U.S. House of Representatives] races that are meaningful that are in play. Ten years ago we would look at 115 races that would be competitive at some level. And today, you know, we have something like 35.
We saw in '92 and in '96 there were a lot of races; '98 dropped a little bit. In 2000 there weren't as many races. And that's sort of natural. You see more competitive races at the beginning of a decade, so the theory goes. The decks are shuffled up and as incumbents get more settled, naturally there should be a drop off at the end of a decade.
What really shook the '90s up was what happened in '94. Nobody expected that 52 House seats would be lost by the Democrats. That made the '96 election bigger than it might normally have been because of the big '94 switch.
So then 2002 should be volatile because that is a redistricting year. Instead we had even fewer [competitive] seats. And part of the reason is the way that redistricting worked. We saw a lot of [state] legislatures decide to basically take what districts could be competitive and just shore them up for their incumbents.
California is a great example. There are 53 congressional districts in California. Only one of them is competitive this year. Doesn't it seem impossible? The largest state in the union doesn't have a competitive [House] race.
At the same time, the parties are having real trouble recruiting candidates to run. And I don't know the answer to that problem. I think it is ridiculously expensive to run for Congress; I don't think you can run a decent race for under a million dollars. I think two million is more realistic. And then knowing what it is like to run a congressional race? Exhausting.
And on top of that, the incumbent thing has become even more of an asset. They get re-elected more than 90 percent of the time in modern history; we have seen that. But over the course of the last three cycles, we saw re-election rates that were 98 percent. The last cycle99 percent of incumbents were re-elected. That's phenomenal.
So what that means is that Republicans have an incredible advantage in hanging on to the House. And even though they only have a 12-seat majority, you'd think it shouldn't be that hard to pick up 12 little seats out of 435. But based on everything that I just said you can see how difficult it is to get even to 12. And because of polarization, you have more people who are actually voting party lines. . . .
After the 2000 election a Democratic strategist said, 'We got killed in every district that didn't have a Starbucks in it.' And he was kind of joking but kind of not. The point was that this whole red-blue idea is not so much about how much money you make anymore, or what kind of job you have; it is more dependent on these social and cultural issues. You see that some of the poorest counties in the country are voting Republican and the wealthiest voted for a Democrat. People in suburban Chicago and Philadelphia were voting on guns, the environment and education. People in the rural areas were voting on the environment, guns and abortion, too.
What the Bush campaign did so well in 2000 was to recognize that. They have to start talking about education, and look. A Republican Congress just passed a bill for Medicarenot Democrats. The Democrats are the party of deficit reduction and the Republicans are the party of Medicare. What? You know, that is fascinating, just to think that in 10 or 12 years that I have been here, that that has been a major change."