Fewer and fewer U.S. House seats have any competition

WASHINGTON - When the votes are counted and the results are announced, congressional delegations in many states will emerge from Tuesday’s elections looking almost exactly like they do now.

All eight of the House incumbents seeking re-election in Tennessee are expected to easily win another term.

Missouri doesn’t have any competitive House races this year.

Even Ohio – the ultimate swing state — is anything but a battleground for House seats this year.

“It’s still remarkable in this volatile environment we aren’t talking about a single competitive race in Ohio,” said Nathan Gonzales, who tracks House races for the non-partisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.

Across much of the country, congressional races really aren’t much of a race. The number of competitive House seats has been shrinking for years.

Just 40 of the 435 seats in the House are competitive this year, said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report in Washington.

By comparison, more than 100 seats were competitive at this point in 2010. Republicans went on to pick up 63 seats that year and rode a tidal wave of voter anger that swept them back into power for the first time since in four years.

In 1994, there were 63 "tossup" congressional races across the country, according to the Cook rating in October of that year.

These days, an overwhelming number of House districts are one-sided in their partisan makeup, meaning they are virtually unwinnable for the other party.

And in some cases, nobody even tries. In Alabama, for example, three of the seven incumbents are unopposed. The other four are Republicans who have little-known, long-shot Democratic challengers in districts that have strongly favored the GOP for several election cycles.

Critics like to blame the lack of competitive seats on gerrymandering, or drawing the lines of congressional districts so that they benefit one party. But there’s more to it than that, Wasserman said.

“More and more people are living in neighborhoods where the vast majority of their friends and neighbors agree with their political values,” he said.

It’s what Kent Syler, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University, calls the “self-sorting of the population.” In other words, “It’s where you live, what color you are, even how often you go to church,” he said.

The absence of real competition in elections is the main reason Congress is so polarized, Syler said.

“When all you have to do is worry about winning the Democratic or the Republican primary, you move way too far left or too far right because you’re always worried about somebody primarying you,” he said. “You’re not worried about the general election.”

Syler knows a lot about the ways of Washington. He worked for more than two decades as the chief of staff to then-congressman Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who left office five years ago.

At the time, Gordon’s district had a 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans.

“We didn’t worry about the primary,” Syler said. “We worried about making sure we had a moderate record because we didn’t want to get too far out of step with the equally divided district we had.”

This year, the ultimate non-race is happening in Vermont.

Peter Welch, the Green Mountain State’s lone congressman, is on the ballot as both a Democrat and a Republican.

Welch is a liberal and is running for a sixth term as a Democrat. But he also ended up on the GOP ballot after somebody launched a write-in campaign on his behalf.

He won.

Now, his only competition on Tuesday is Erica Clawson of the Liberty Union Party, which means he’s pretty much a shoo-in. Unless he manages to defeat himself.

“Knock on wood, I’ll be alright,” Welch said.

Contributing: Mary Troyan, Nicole Gaudiano, Deirdre Shesgreen, Craig Gilbert


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