Oops, We Did It Again

Notes from the political sidelines.
Oct. 20 2006 5:07 PM

Oops, We Did It Again

Bush can eat crow now, or eat more of it later.

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Yet even after poring over this week's bleak poll numbers, Karl Rove isn't completely crazy to imagine his party holding onto the House in November. Democrats aren't likely to win the popular vote by seven points, let alone 17. But what's really keeping Rove's dark hopes alive is the Safehouse that Jack and Tom Built—the firewall of safe districts that could enable the Republican party to survive what would otherwise be a China-syndrome political meltdown.

If congressional districts were truly representative, a party that won a seven-point victory in the popular vote would walk away with a 7 percent edge in the 435-member House of Representatives, or roughly a 30-seat majority. For Democrats, that would represent a pickup of around 45 seats.

In a Category 5 political tsunami, anything is possible. But a cold-eyed look at the districts in play shows the tough slog Democrats have, even in a banner year, just to get to a simple House majority.

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The RealClearPolitics rankings of the Top 40 House races show how steep the terrain has become. By RCP's count, in order to pick up 10 seats, Democrats will have to carry five districts that Bush won by 14 points or more in 2004, including three that Bush carried by more than 20 points. For a 30-seat gain, Democrats will have to carry 12 districts that Bush won by 10 points or more. Only one of those 30 districts gave a 10-point margin to John Kerry.

That's no reason to discount Democrats' chances of taking back the House in November. In each of the top 30-40 races, it's quite possible to see how the Democrat can win. But Democrats need to remember about the House what we learned the hard way about the Electoral College—even with a popular majority, we still have to run the table.

Tom DeLay traded his career for a mug shot in order to build the Republican majority's most formidable levee, the gerrymander of Texas's 32-seat delegation. In 2005, two big states—California (with 53 seats, more than the 20 smallest states put together) and Ohio (with 18, a number remarkably close to the incumbent Republican governor's approval rating)—trounced fair-redistricting initiatives that would have put more House seats in play.

California Democrats opposed redistricting in order to punish Schwarzenegger. As a result, House Republicans could well survive the worst political year in a generation without losing a single seat in the largest state (and one of the bluest). And because he got pounded at the polls, Schwarzenegger turned himself back into a centrist who's now riding the wave instead of drowning in the tsunami.

Rigged districts defeat the very reason we have a House of Representatives in the first place. The founders wanted one chamber that would be held accountable to the popular will every two years. When the Electoral College is wrong, at least it's a wrong the framers intended.

Thanks to DeLay, conservatives who now want their party to surrender Congress in November may find that they can't lose for trying. The irony is profoundly tragic: A Republican Congress that owed its existence to the term-limits movement went on to build the most absurd system of incumbent protection since the Great Wall of China.

If the GOP somehow holds on next month, voters will have every right to suspect the election was stolen. But it won't do any good to blame machines, when a conspiracy of incumbents did all the stealing. ... 1:54 P.M. (link)

Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at thehasbeen@gmail.com. Read his disclosure here.

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