That weakness in the most heavily white seats complicates Democratic hopes of regaining the House majority. But with fewer Democratic members relying on conservative whites to win, the party has more freedom to advance issues, such as immigration reform, that it muted for fear of alienating those voters.
Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, the recently elected House Democratic Caucus chairman, says he believes that the freshman members rooted in these diverse districts will coalesce more closely, even on issues such as health care and immigration that previously divided the party. Members who previously were “spooked by the Republican attacks” on those subjects “today are solid,” he says. “The conversation we’re having about immigration reform is dramatically different.”
The change Becerra describes is a congressional analogue to the process Obama went through at the national level over the past year. On issues from gay marriage to contraception coverage to immigration reform, Obama embraced positions that mobilized elements of the new Democratic coalition (young people, socially liberal women, minorities) even at the price of further antagonizing culturally conservative, older, and blue-collar whites.
In November, Obama emphatically demonstrated that his formula could produce a national majority. But the calculus is more complex for House Democrats. While minority voters are dispersing, they remain heavily concentrated around big cities. That means the changing demography is reshaping the congressional battlefield more slowly than the presidential landscape. The 259 districts in which whites represent at least two-thirds of the voting-age population is down from 304 in 2000, but they remain a solid majority of House seats; the Republicans’ hold on 187 of those districts provides the GOP a structural advantage in the battle for a majority (just as the Democrats’ advantage in the most diverse states gives them a structural advantage in the Electoral College).
All of this presents Democrats with a mirror image of the Republican conundrum. Although Becerra says that it is critical to deliver on issues such as immigration reform to convince the party’s national coalition that “there is a reason for the faith that they have in voting,” those same initiatives could make it tougher for Democrats to capture the heavily white districts that undergird the GOP House majority.
That could require a shift in the party’s electoral strategy. In 2006, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, regained the House majority largely by recruiting culturally conservative candidates who won those white districts. But with Obama committed to a more culturally liberal agenda on everything from gay marriage to gun control, Democrats may find it more profitable to focus on capturing more of the 22 Republican-held districts in which minorities represent at least 40 percent of the voting-age population, or the 38 where minorities constitute between 30 and 40 percent.
For now, the DCCC is determined to split the difference. In the next midterm election, when minority turnout traditionally declines, the committee plans to focus largely on the sort of heavily white seats that Emanuel targeted in 2006, officials there say. In 2016, when the presidential race could again swell minority turnout, it will intensify its efforts in the diverse Republican-held districts.
Any “diverse” path toward a Democratic majority will require the party to expand on the three Republican seats it captured last November in California and the one it took in Texas. Democrats have greater near-term opportunities in California (including the districts now held by Republicans Gary Miller, David Valadao, and Jeff Denham), but Texas could prove even more critical to their long-term hopes.
There, the Republicans who controlled redistricting fragmented the rapidly growing population of Hispanics and African-Americans across a large number of districts, usually leaving enough white voters for GOP candidates to maintain an advantage. As a result, 19 Texas Republicans in the House hold seats in which minorities represent at least 29 percent of the voting-age population. Few of those members look vulnerable today, but that could change as the minority population’s growth continues over the decade—particularly if Democrats seriously invest in registering some of the state’s 2.2 million eligible but unregistered Hispanics. “If your rule is to keep [the minority population] in the mid-30s and spread it out over four or six districts, that’s not something you can sustain,” says Jacob Limon, the deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “Eventually those start turning into 40 percent-plus [minority] districts … and you’re building a coalition that can win those districts.”
Ultimate Democratic gains in racially diverse Texas districts would fit a larger pattern. As fewer voters split their ballots in this highly polarized era, each party now primarily holds House districts populated by the same sort of voters it attracts in the presidential contest. For Republicans, that means a caucus centered on whiter districts, many of them blue collar, and the vast majority culturally conservative. For Democrats, that translates into reliance on mostly diverse districts, supplemented by socially liberal white-collar suburban seats. Outliers who defy these trends, such as Republican former Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, or rural Democratic former Reps. Ike Skelton of Missouri and John Spratt of South Carolina, are dwindling on either side.
This tightening alignment in national and congressional elections promises more unity within each party on most issues. But it could make it even more daunting to forge common purpose between them.
This article appears in the Jan. 12, 2013, edition of National Journal as Stairway to Nowhere.