- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

The overwhelming majority of House incumbents have little if any serious opposition in November’s midterm elections, whose outcome likely will be decided by 30 to 40 tossup races out of a total of 435 contests.

That is the inherent contradiction in an election portrayed as a titanic battle of fed-up voters unhappy with members of Congress when, in fact, a majority approve of their representatives’ performance in office and are expected to return most incumbents to Washington, many by large majorities.

“This happens to be a year when more competitive House seats are in play, but it’s still a small universe,” said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “The vast majority of members, no matter how strong the wind is blowing, no matter how much the public wants change, they are immune from it.”

While voter approval of Congress has plunged to 32 percent in the wake of the lobbying and congressional-page scandals, a Washington Post-ABC News poll of voters last week found that at least 60 percent liked and supported their representatives.

“The old adage that voters hate Congress but love their congressman continues to ring true. Incumbents are hard to beat,” said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The number of noncompetitive House elections range from 354 to nearly 400, according to various analysts who have surveyed the individual campaigns.

“There are probably around 380 out of 435 seats that are simply not competitive at all,” Mr. Ornstein said. “You still have about 30 or so that are in the pure tossup category and close to another 30 that are leaning one way or the other.”

A comprehensive survey of House seats by Congressional Quarterly’s CQPolitics.com said there was a “total of 354 seats (or 81 percent of the House)” safe for the incumbent party.

CQ also found that 55 House members had no major-party opponent, though most had third-party, independent or write-in opposition who were not considered a threat to their re-election. Of these 55 lawmakers, 45 were Democrats and 10 were Republicans — “an indication that the Democrats sought to field as many candidates as possible in an election year in which the national political environment favors them,” said CQPolitics.com senior writer Gregory L. Girouix, who conducted the 50-state survey.

Elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg said 59 House seats are “in play,” including 51 Republican seats and 8 Democratic seats. Twenty-six of these seats, all held by Republicans, are considered “tossups,” while another nine Republican seats are either favored to go Democratic or leaning in that direction.

The Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to take majority control of the House, which they lost in 1994. That was the year when Republicans, without losing any of their own races, won a net gain of 18 seats in open contests and defeated 34 Democratic incumbents for a total 52-seat gain.

The predominant reason most representatives remain safe is redistricting, the redrawing of congressional lines every 10 years to maintain proportional representation in each district. Redistricting has become a high-tech, computer-designed art, in which the majority party in the state legislatures, armed with the latest census tracts, can move enough voters into districts to protect their lawmakers from serious challenge.

“The dynamics of redistricting still works to create safe districts in most cases,” Mr. Ornstein said.

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