Democratic House majority seems unlikely
Congressman Tim Roemer will retire next year, ending a long and distinguished career representing South Bend in Congress. His retirement makes the battle for Democratic control of the House difficult, if not impossible. It's not that the next election hinges on events in the 3rd District, but Roemer's leaving exposes some larger trends that will keep Republicans in the majority in 2002.
Predictions such as mine run against both historical analysis and current wisdom. If you have been listening to the media for the past couple months you would think that the Democrats have the 2002 elections wrapped up. "We know that historically the party that holds the White House loses seats in Congress," writes USA Today's Susan Page. The New Republic's Noam Scheiber reported that Democrats are confident that the GOP was weakened by the last election. Said Scheiber, "When you consider how ugly Bush's victory was, the GOP majority doesn't look just tenuous; it looks downright imperiled."
Such is the prevailing opinion. But Democrats are running uphill in their race for control of the House (the Senate is another matter entirely). Roemer's retirement is just one of weights holding them down. Not only will it be difficult to win back the five seats needed to regain the majority, but they might even lose ground. Retirements, reapportionment and redistricting will conspire to thwart dreams of a Democratic majority.
Retirements are a big factor. Besides Roemer there are several other prominent Democrats likely to retire. In 1998 and 2000, minority leader Dick Gephardt convinced several of his older colleagues to postpone retirement. He argued that Democrats could take back the House only if they kept incumbents in place. But narrow defeats in the last two elections make that argument much more difficult to make. Additionally, several of the Democrats reported to retire — Ike Skelton of Missouri, Norman Sisisky from Virginia, and Earl Pomeroy from North Dakota — are from districts that lean Republican.
Reapportionment is another crucial consideration. Every decade each state carves up its voting districts to reflect its current population. The Census of 2000 indicated a continuing migration from the Rust Belt and the Midwest to the Sunbelt. Indiana, along with Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin will each lose one Congressional seat. Pennsylvania and New York will probably lose two seats. Other than Indiana, the states mentioned have been consistently Democrat. The states that are gaining seats in reapportionment, however, have all been Republican strongholds. Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Utah will all have additional congressional representation in 2002.
With reapportionment comes redistricting, and that process also favors Republicans. State representatives and governors are right now redrawing congressional maps to reflect population changes. The process is a political one. The party in charge of the legislature draws the new lines. Their goal it to protect their own incumbents while making the other party's incumbents as vulnerable as possible. The Democrats control Indiana's redistricting and are faced with the fact that they have to cut out a congressional seat. Roemer's retirement gives them an easy compromise that will protect other Democratic incumbents in a mostly Republican state. They could simply split Roemer's district in two. The more Democratic St. Joseph's County going to Democrat Peter Visclosky and the more Republican Elkhart County going to Republican Mark Souder (both are Notre Dame grads). Unless a creative solution is found, Indiana will lose a Congressional seat and that seat will be Democratic. Similar prospects are likely in other states. With Republican-controlled legislatures overseeing the redistricting process in such key states as Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Pennsylvania, the chances of Democrats gaining seats in reapportionment are slim.
Despite these facts, there are many still predicting that Democrats will gain control of the House in 2002. According to recent polls, the issues on voters' minds favor Democrats and there is deep resentment against Bush's election victory. The combination of factors might lead to a Democratic victory in 2002, but it is not something one should take to Vegas. Voter memories are not long. And Democrats cannot count on having "the issues" on their side. If there is one thing that Republicans have learned from Clinton, it is that sophisticated polling technology can tip them off to hot election issues. This happened in the last election, when the GOP co-opted Democratic issues on prescription drug benefits and a patient's bill of rights. That move toward the center saved some vulnerable Republican incumbents. If Democrats can't bet on voter anger and the issues, they shouldn't be too optimistic about their chances. They only have to look at Roemer's retirement for compelling evidence that winning a majority in the House will be an uphill battle.
Scott Flipse is associate director of Notre Dame's semester in Washington program and a Pew Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want more information on the Washington semester, visit the website at www.nd.edu/~semester.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, September 11, 2001