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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.

But without a doubt, the most interesting example is Pennsylvania. Over the past three cycles, no state has played host to as many competitive contests (eight), and only Texas has offered a bigger portfolio of in-play districts (it had six to Pennsylvania’s five).

Moreover, with GOP incumbents Michael Fitzpatrick and Jim Gerlach set to face tough races in 2006, Pennsylvania features two districts that have been consistently competitive in recent cycles. Only Colorado has more, with three.

One reason for Pennsylvania’s volatility, analysts say, is the nature of the most recent redistricting map. Since Texas is sufficiently Republican, the GOP-led redistricting managed to create mostly safe districts. Pennsylvania is more of a swing state. So, drawing a map that was able to elect 12 Republicans and only seven Democrats — as is the case now — meant creating a bunch of districts in which the incumbent is not necessarily that safe.

One indication is that among the states, Pennsylvania ranks first in the number of districts in which a different party won the presidential vote and the House race. In the Keystone State, four districts went for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) but elected a Republican to the House: the seats occupied by Gerlach and Fitzpatrick, as well as by Reps. Curt Weldon and Charlie Dent. Moreover, the district held by Democrat Tim Holden went for President Bush. In all, Pennsylvania accounts for nearly a quarter of the 17 districts nationwide that backed both Kerry and a Republican for the House.

But there may be an even more significant factor at play in Pennsylvania. The Republican Party, particularly in the Philadelphia suburbs, was for many years socially moderate, while the Democratic Party, especially in the western part of the state, had a blue-collar, socially conservative cast. In recent years, though, these orientations put members of both parties at odds with their respective national party. As a result, a major realignment has been under way.

Southeastern Pennsylvania, once a Republican stronghold, has turned increasingly Democratic, first in federal races and now increasingly in state and local elections. Southwestern Pennsylvania, for its part, has been heading in the GOP’s direction.

While the Congressional realignment in southwestern Pennsylvania was mostly carried to fruition by the GOP-led redistricting after the 2000 Census, the Philadelphia area remains ripe for further Democratic gains. That accounts for much of Pennsylvania’s No. 1 ranking on our list.

“For Democratic candidates in the southeastern part of the state, their whole strategy is to paint Congressmen like Gerlach and Fitzpatrick as being in the back pocket of Bush,” said David Patti, president of the pro-business group Pennsylvanians for Effective Government. With Bush and the national GOP scoring poorly in metropolitan Philadelphia, Gerlach and Fitzpatrick can expect to be targeted by the Democrats indefinitely, even if they win again in 2006.

Elsewhere, a few smaller states have been making the campaign landscape a little more interesting. Even before Hurricane Katrina scrambled the political calculations for all incumbents, Louisiana was home to two districts that looked competitive in the near term — the ones held by Democrat Charlie Melancon and Republican Charles Boustany. The fluidity of Louisiana politicians’ party affiliation is one factor that has pepped up House races in the Bayou State.

Connecticut, too, has two districts that appear competitive for now — the seats held by GOP Reps. Rob Simmons and Christopher Shays. As in Pennsylvania, the key factor producing volatility in the Nutmeg State has been voters’ growing disenchantment with the national GOP.

Finally, in Iowa and Washington state, non-partisan and bipartisan redistricting processes, respectively, have helped create an above-average number of competitive seats recently.

Of course, some of the nation’s most populous states have been wastelands for those who care about competitive races. They are:

1. Massachusetts

2. California

3. Ohio

4. Michigan

5. New Jersey

(tie) Florida

Most of these states owe their spot to creative map-drawing. But no state has been as breathtakingly monolithic as Massachusetts.

The Bay State’s 10-district map is not only highly gerrymandered — almost every district takes in a slice of the Boston metropolitan area — but also has elected Democrats at a perfect 10-for-10 clip for roughly a decade. Alone among states that have more than eight House Members, Massachusetts hasn’t had a single competitive race during the past three cycles.

So if any state legislators are reading this: Don’t follow the Massachusetts model after the 2010 Census. Please. We political analysts are getting really bored out here.

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