The most pressing issue in American politics this November shouldn’t be who’s going to win seats in the House of Representatives, but who’s most likely to lose them: moderates in swing districts. We’ve set up a system that rewards the most partisan representatives with all-but-lifetime tenure while forcing many of those who work toward legislative compromises to wage an endless, soul-sapping fight for political survival.
Thanks to today’s expertly drawn congressional districts, most lawmakers represent seats that are either overwhelmingly Republican or overwhelmingly Democratic. As long as House members appeal to their party’s base, they’re in okay shape—a strategy that has helped yield a 98 percent reelection rate on Capitol Hill. Short of being indicted or nabbed by the FBI, scandal- ridden incumbents in safe districts usually don’t have to worry much about paying the ultimate political price. Ken Calvert, a Republican representative from California, was caught in a car with a prostitute during his first term but, after putting out campaign literature implying that his Democratic opponent was gay, held on to his seat. Last year Calvert and a business partner bought a four-acre parcel of land in Riverside County for $550,000; after securing federal funds for the expansion of a nearby freeway interchange, along with federal money to support commercial development in the area, they sold the property for nearly $1 million. But Democrats say they are not running a serious challenger against Calvert, because the seat leans strongly Republican.
This sort of voter segregation has created a legislative body whose members belong to factions at the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and rarely engage each other. Members spend as little time in Washington as possible, rushing home to districts where they are surrounded by people who think like they do. “Bottom line, the big picture is there are a hundred Republicans who never talk to Democrats on the floor, and a hundred Democrats who never talk to Republicans on the floor,” says Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat who occasionally sits with the Republicans on the House floor and does not vote a strict party line. “They don’t know each other, they don’t like each other, and they don’t trust each other.” The House is, quite simply, a meaner place than it used to be, in part because so many of the men and women who work there are strangers to one another. They have moved from the corrupt coziness of the 1960s to an even unhealthier polarization.
A proven track record of reaching across the aisle hasn’t exactly bought political protection for the remaining moderates. Charlie Stenholm, a Texas Democrat, cosponsored President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, yet Texas Republicans ensured his defeat in 2004 by redrawing his congressional district in 2003. Even in this summer’s congressional primaries, several candidates lost in part because their opponents successfully attacked their efforts at bipartisan cooperation. Many of the few dozen incumbents facing competitive races this November are also moderates, who represent districts divided more or less evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Christopher Shays, a Republican representative from Connecticut, has collaborated with Democrats on issues ranging from campaign-finance reform to the environment, but this summer Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel approached Shays in the House gym, slung his arm around him, and said, “As one good friend to another: we’re going to spend two and a half million against you.”
For swing-district representatives like Shays, the day-to-day demands—and indignities—that confront any member trying to stay in office are that much harder. To get a sense of how tight a race Shays faces this year against his opponent, Westport Democrat Diane Farrell, consider this: on June 18—Father’s Day—he was throwing the first pitch at the championship game of the Fairfield County Connecticut Jewish Little League. And it was the minor-league championship. Not only had Shays been hoping for a day off from campaigning, but he dreaded the thought of muffing the opening pitch. The only official duty Shays dislikes more, in fact, is pulling the winning ticket for a luxury car out of a hat. As he calculates it, “There’s only one winner, and there are 300 to 500 losers—a disastrous situation if you’re aiming to win support in a tight election. Since the odds of success are much better at a Jewish Little League contest (Shays was just throwing a pitch over an empty plate, rather than, say, calling strikes and balls on the kids of potential donors), the congressman showed up that Sunday afternoon, in the broiling heat, sporting his usual khakis and button-down shirt.
Shays is, one can say without exaggeration, one of the nicest members of the House of Representatives. He worked the Little League crowd easily, shaking hands with constituents and brushing aside their thanks for having chosen to spend part of his weekend with them. “Thank you. I love representing you,” he said to one couple, before turning to their two young sons. “Hey, guys, I’m Chris. And your name is—?” Doling out White House tour passes, Shays joked with voters about his own uncertain reelection prospects. “Does this come with an expiration date?” asked Sharon Risch, a Fairfield resident who took his business card, on which was written Shays’s promise of a personal escort to the White House gate. “Well, I have to get reelected. That gives you an incentive,” he replied.
Shays, at least, has an easy time fund-raising, because he represents one of the wealthiest congressional districts in the country. He doesn’t have to plead personally for contributions; if he sends out a direct-mail appeal to his constituents, they usually respond with sizable checks. Other lawmakers have to hustle. Sarah Feinberg, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman, estimates that incumbent members in a competitive race spend “twenty-five hours a week” fund-raising, while challengers devote “forty to fifty hours a week” to literally dialing for dollars.