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Competitive House Races: Some States Shoulder the Burden

For political junkies, the past few campaign cycles have been the best of times and the worst of times.

We’ve witnessed two barnburner presidential races, a bevy of tight Senate contests and massive turnover in the gubernatorial ranks — yet in the House, the number of genuinely competitive seats has shrunk to historic lows, due to a raft of pro-incumbent redistricting maps.

Given the electoral doldrums on that side of the Capitol, Out There thought it was time to see whether any states were actually pulling their weight in producing competitive House races.

The answer: There are some, if you look hard enough.

But first, a word about methodology. We began by looking at the seats in play during the 2002, 2004 and 2006 election cycles — the three cycles held since the last big round of redistricting. To determine how many seats were “in play,” we counted how many were rated as a “tossup” or a “lean” by handicapper Charlie Cook in his final pre-election reports for 2002 and 2004 and in his most recent ratings for 2006.

Next, we assessed each state on four key measures: the total number of in-play seats during that period; the number of individual districts that were competitive at least once; the number of in-play seats for 2006 that have been in play at least once before during the previous two cycles; and the ratio of in-play districts to the size of the state’s House delegation.

We hoped that these categories, properly weighted, would produced a list balanced between big and small states, and they have. The most competitive five states, according to our calculations, are:

1. Pennsylvania

2. Indiana

3. Georgia

4. Colorado

5. Texas

A look at why these states have produced a good number of tight House races reveals a mix of factors. Georgia and Texas made the list because they underwent not one but two rounds of bare-knuckled redistricting after the 2000 Census. Those redraws produced seven in-play seats for each state in the period studied.

But fans of competitive seats shouldn’t be too happy about what happened in Texas: The lines drawn by the ascendant GOP majority are not expected to yield much electoral volatility in the years ahead. Georgia, by contrast, can expect

continued flux, with Democratic Reps. John Barrow and Jim Marshall on the hot seat for at least 2006 and, if they win again, possibly beyond.

Indiana and Colorado, for their part, also promise a fair amount of electoral hijinks in the near term.

In Indiana, redistricting did not play a significant role, but the competitive nature of the districts held by GOP Reps. Mike Sodrel and John Hostettler make the state a perennial focus for party strategists. And Colorado is not only home to one district that was evenly drawn by the courts (and which will be vacated in 2006 by GOP Rep. Bob Beauprez) but also has had a volatile political climate recently, with Democrats making strong gains in 2004. Both factors make future electoral fireworks likely.

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