August 5, 2015



In Washington, D.C., "safe" is every politician's, lobbyist's and campaign fund-raiser's favorite four-letter word, physically and politically, especially in the U.S. House, where the Republicans hold a 245-188 majority (with two vacancies).

Of the 435 seats up for election in 2016, according to nonpartisan prognosticators like the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report, Rollcall, Sabato's Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report, only 32 are "in play," which means susceptible to a party switch next year. Of those 32, 24 are occupied by Republicans and eight are occupied by Democrats. They are ranked as pure toss-up, tilt or incumbent favored. The remaining 403 seats, 223 Republican and 180 Democrat, are rated "safe." Since 218 seats constitute a majority, the Democrats have to flip 30 Republican-held seats to restore Nancy Pelosi to the speakership. That's just not going to happen.

Republican domination of the South, combined with favorable 2011 redistricting, especially in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina, virtually ensures a Republican House until 2022, unless a Republican wins the presidency in 2016 and makes a complete mess of things. If Hillary Clinton wins the White House in 2016, even if she's exceptionally deft, the Republicans will keep their House majority in 2018 and 2020.

Control of the House only flips in limited circumstances:

First, there is a "wave." An incumbent is deemed "safe" if he or she gets at least 55 percent of the vote in two successive elections and if the incumbent's party wins the presidential election in that district with more than 55 percent of the vote. In the 114th Congress, almost half of the incumbents won with more than 60 percent of the vote, and many, particularly in majority-minority districts, won with upwards of 80 percent. In a "wave," the incumbent president and his party are so reviled that there's a 10 percent voter shift. The contest becomes a referendum on the president, and discontented voters register their disdain by voting against the president's party's congressional nominees.

Non-presidential year "waves" occurred in 1930, 1946, 1958, 1974, 1986, 1994 and 2006, when the Democrats won the House amid Bush malaise. Control of the House also flipped in 1930, 1946 and 1994.

Second, there are "coattails," which back in the 1960s and 1970s were thought to be a vanishing phenomenon. Ticket splitters, who voted for one party's presidential candidate and the other party's Senate or House candidate, were the rage. No longer. Ideology and partisanship, combined with culture and race, have brought back straight-ticket voting, which prevailed from the 1870s to the 1950s. Someone who voted for Obama in 2012 would vote for a Democrat for Congress and every other office, while someone who voted for Romney would back every Republican candidate. That will happen in 2016.

Voting has become a personal statement, reflecting an "us-versus-them" choice. The other side's candidates are the "bad guys" -- all of them.

Third, whichever party controls redistricting, which occurs in the year following the decennial census, can "pack" opposition voters in a few districts. That occurred in 2010, when the anti-Obama wave gave Republicans control of legislatures and governorships in key states.

Some examples: Ohio, which gave Obama 52 percent of the vote in 2008 and 51 percent in 2012, has a congressional delegation which is 12-4 Republican. Michigan, which gave Obama 57 percent in 2008 and 54 percent in 2012, has a congressional delegation which is 9-5 Republican. Pennsylvania, which gave Obama 54 percent in 2008 and 52 percent in 2012, has a congressional delegation which is 13-5 Republican. Indiana, which gave Obama 50 percent in 2008 and 44 percent in 2012, has a congressional delegation which is 7-2 Republican. North Carolina, which gave Obama 50 percent in 2008 and 48 percent in 2012, has a congressional delegation which is 10-3 Republican. Georgia, which gave Obama 47 percent in 2008 and 46 percent in 2012, has a congressional delegation which is 10-4 Republican. Florida, which gave Obama 51 percent in 2008 and 50 percent in 2012, has a congressional delegation which is 17-10 Republican. Texas, which is heavily Republican but with a growing minority and gave Obama 44 percent in 2008 and 41 percent in 2012, has a congressional delegation which is 25-11 Republican.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between the Democrats' statewide vote and their congressional representation. Half the voters back Obama, but the Republicans hold 60 to 75 percent of the state's congressional seats. The federal Voting Rights Act mandates that once a majority-minority congressional district is created, it can never be "diluted" (with non-white voters removed); it must be preserved in perpetuity. So, legally and constitutionally, Republican legislatures can "bleach" (remove minorities and Democrats from Republican-winnable districts) and "pack" (cram urban-based districts with as many Democrats and minorities as possible), and the Republicans can carve a multitude of districts where the Republican base vote is 55 to 60 percent and elect Republican congressmen.

Illinois, New York and California are the exceptions. In 2010 the Democrats kept control of the Illinois General Assembly and the governorship, and the Republicans' 11-8 2010 congressional edge became 12-6 Democratic in 2012 as a Republican seat was eliminated and four Republican incumbents were defeated. The Democrats in Springfield, led by House Speaker Mike Madigan, crafted a remap that "packed" every Republican possible into six districts, and, amazingly, there was no disconnect. Republican John McCain got 37 percent of the vote in 2008 and Mitt Romney got 41 percent in 2012. The Republican congressional delegation was 33.3 percent in 2012 and 44.4 percent (10-8 Democratic) after 2014.

In 2014 the Republicans recaptured the Cook County North Shore/east Lake County 10th District, with Bob Dold making a comeback and beating Brad Schneider, and the Downstate East Saint Louis/Belleville/Carbondale 12th District, where demographic change, cultural issues and anti-Obama sentiment enabled Mike Bost to beat Bill Enyart, a weak, first-term Democrat. The seat had been held by a Democrat since 1944.

The other three 2012 Democratic winners, Tammy Duckworth, Bill Foster and Cheri Bustos, all had Madigan-created, Democratic-friendly seats, impervious to any Republican "wave." In 2014 Duckworth won with 56 percent of the vote, Foster won with 53 percent and Bustos won with 55 percent. Duckworth is running for U.S. senator in 2016, but all the seats are "safe" for the Democrats, as Obama won them all. The redistricting "packed" them with Democrats.

Dold, who won now-U.S. Senator Mark Kirk's seat in 2010 with 51 percent of the vote, lost in 2012 with 49 percent after the remap took out Palatine and the western Cook County suburbs, and he won the 2014 rematch with 51 percent. Schneider is running again, as is Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering. The June 30 disclosure filings had Dold with $1,049,058 on hand, to $482,834 for Schneider.

Dold has tried to position himself as a "centrist." For example, he opposed a resolution to revoke "Obamacare." In 2012 Dold ran 18,012 votes ahead of Romney and Schneider ran 23,510 votes behind Obama. Since the 2012 turnout in the presidential race was 269,952, about 10 percent of 2012 voters opted for Obama-Dold. That must happen again in 2016 if Dold is to prevail.

In other states, the disconnect is nonexistent and understated. In New York the Democrats have a 21-6 (77.7 percent) congressional majority, and Obama won with 63 percent of the vote in 2008 and 63 percent in 2012. In California the Democrats have a 39-14 congressional majority (73.5 percent), and Obama won with 60 percent in 2008 and 61 percent in 2012.

That's a huge Democratic edge. In liberal Massachusetts, where Obama won with 62 percent in 2008 and 61 percent in 2012, the Democrats have a 9-0 congressional edge. Shouldn't there be at least one Republican? So the Democrats have no reason to complain.

Fourth, incumbency begets longevity. In bygone years, before money was a factor, habituation was the key. Congressional candidates did not need to sell themselves. They simply needed to be the candidate of the right party in the right election. The "wave" lifted them.

An examination of the Illinois congressional delegation is illustrative. Those who stay are those who have power. Longevity matters. Seniority means choice House committee positions, which means the ability to maximize fund-raising, which means the "safe" incumbent can donate part of his largesse to unsafe congressmen or candidates. Having control of a committee does not necessarily have an impact on national policy, but it does serve as a bucket to raise money.

In the past a congressman's re-election was a combination of just being there and being the beneficiary of a national trend. Redistricting also mattered. From 1903 to 1913, Illinois had 25 congressmen and the Republicans had a 24-1 majority in 1904. It was 20-7 Democratic in 1912, 23-3 Republican in 1920, 19-8 Democratic in 1932, 16-9 Republican in 1940 and 16-9 Republican in 1952. In 1958, a Democratic "wave" year, it was 14-11 Democratic, and in 1972 it was 13-11 Republican. In the anti-Watergate year of 1974, it was 14-10 Democratic. In 1982, after an anti-Reagan wave, it was 12-12.

Until lately, familiarity and party habituation mattered. Once in office, one stayed in office. On the West Side, Adolph Sabath, a Czech Jew, served from 1907 to 1953, when he died. Sabath was chairman of the Rules Committee. Leslie Arends, a Downstate Republican who was elected in 1934, became the Republican whip. Illinoisans Henry Rainey and Denny Hastert became speaker of the House. But now money matters, not incumbency.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www.