Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A House Divided

What's the likelihood this guy is going to be a split-ticket voter?
Ever since Karl Rove launched his "Conservative Victory Project" there's been a lot of talk about a Civil War in the Republican Party.  Rove's project is essentially a SuperPac which is going to funnel money towards candidates who face primary challenges from hair-on-fire Tea Party lunatics so that the eventual Republican candidate has a snowball's chance in hell in the general election

As you might expect, the Tea Party folks aren't happy about that.  There's a lot of talk right now that if Rove manages to succeed and torpedo more extreme Tea Party candidates, the Tea Party will either boycott the general election or run their own candidates as a third party.

This already sounds like a pretty bad situation for the Republican establishment, but it gets worse.

Consider how the 435 House races across the country went this last November.  Democrats won 201 seats and Republicans won 234.  Based on those numbers you might wonder how Barack Obama won: a lot of split-ticket voting perhaps?  People voting for President and nothing else?

Would you believe gerrymandering?

Totaling all of the ballots cast in House races in 2012 reveals that Democrats received 48.8% of the votes cast and Republicans received 48.5%.  Democrats actually got more votes in House races than Republicans did and yet still weren't able to win control of the chamber because Republican redistricting in  several states effectively disenfranchised Democrats in House races.

Redistricting  happens every 10 years - it's generally tied to the US Census - and it is left up to the states to draw their districts.  Some creative cartography can effectively create politically unwinnable races for a given party across much of a state.  Whoever controls the state legislature gets to draw the lines and whoever draws the lines has enormous influence over the makeup of that state's delegation to the US House of Representatives.

But back to the Tea Party and the Republican Civil War.

State legislatures, just like the national legislature - Congress - are elected.  The races are smaller, the advertising budgets less impressive, and the candidates a good deal less polished, but the idea is basically the same.  As a result of their lower profile, the races that determine the composition of a state's legislature often see much lower turnout.  The further "down-ticket" a race is, the more likely it is to be decided by committed partisans and highly motivated voters.

Which brings us back to the Tea Party.  Despite its protestations to the contrary, Tea Party members are not independents and they don't vote like independents; they vote like committed Republican partisans and highly motivated voters.

In other words, the Tea Party is the backbone of the GOP base and their fanaticism is the major reason that the Republicans have been able to maintain a legislative and gubinatorial edge in states that are reliably vote Democratic in national races.

That edge gave Republicans the ability to favorably redistrict numerous states in 2010 and that redistricting kept the House in Republican hands in 2012.

But should the Tea Party sever itself from the GOP, should the Republicans lose their embarassing but politically useful wing-nuts, state races will become much closer and the 2020 census may afford Democrats with an opportunity to turn back the clock on the 2010 Tea Party redistricting.

As bad as things are now for Republicans, after that they'll get a whole lot worse.

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