Republicans More Insulated Against Backlash

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) (center) and others listen during a press conference outside the Capitol on September 29, 2013.
National Journal
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Ben Terris, David Wasserman and Ronald Brownstein
Oct. 1, 2013, 3:28 a.m.

Resolv­ing the seri­al show­downs over the fed­er­al budget and debt ceil­ing may be more dif­fi­cult now than dur­ing the last shut­down un­der Bill Clin­ton and Newt Gin­grich be­cause so many more House Re­pub­lic­ans today rep­res­ent safely GOP dis­tricts, a Na­tion­al Journ­al ana­lys­is has found.

This sug­gests that even if a pub­lic back­lash de­vel­ops against a shut­down or po­ten­tial gov­ern­ment de­fault, Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers may be far more in­su­lated against those gales than their coun­ter­parts were dur­ing the two shut­downs in the winter of 1995 and 1996. Today’s GOP le­gis­lat­ors, for the same reas­on, also may be less sens­it­ive to shifts in pub­lic at­ti­tudes that could threaten their party’s na­tion­al im­age or stand­ing in more closely con­tested parts of the coun­try.

Com­par­ing today’s 232-seat Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity with the 236 seats Re­pub­lic­ans ul­ti­mately held after spe­cial elec­tions and party switches from 1995-96 un­der­scores the ex­tent to which GOP le­gis­lat­ors have suc­ceeded in for­ti­fy­ing them­selves in­to ho­mo­gen­eously con­ser­vat­ive dis­tricts. On every meas­ure, Re­pub­lic­ans today rep­res­ent con­stitu­en­cies that lean more lop­sidedly to­ward their party.

On av­er­age, Clin­ton in 1992 won 46.6 per­cent of the two-party pres­id­en­tial vote in the dis­tricts held by con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans dur­ing the 104th Con­gress from 1995-96. (That two-party cal­cu­la­tion ex­cludes the share car­ried by Ross Perot in his in­de­pend­ent bid that year.) Pres­id­ent Obama last year car­ried only an av­er­age of 40.4 per­cent of the two-party pres­id­en­tial vote in the dis­tricts held by the cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity.

Back in 1995, 79 House Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­en­ted dis­tricts that backed Clin­ton in the pre­vi­ous pres­id­en­tial elec­tion; just 17 House Re­pub­lic­ans now rep­res­ent dis­tricts that Obama won. Few­er Re­pub­lic­ans now hold dis­tricts that fall in­to an even broad­er defin­i­tion of com­pet­it­ive­ness:  In 1992, Re­pub­lic­an Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush won 55 per­cent or less of the two-party pres­id­en­tial vote in 141 of the 236 House Re­pub­lic­an dis­tricts. Now, only 71 House Re­pub­lic­ans, roughly half as many, rep­res­ent dis­tricts where 2012 nom­in­ee Mitt Rom­ney won only 55 per­cent or less.

All of this means that the per­son­al elect­or­al in­cent­ives for most House Re­pub­lic­ans would en­cour­age more — not less — con­front­a­tion as the stan­doffs pro­ceed, notes Gary C. Jac­ob­son, an ex­pert on Con­gress at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (San Diego). “The elect­or­al threat of them an­ger­ing any­body out­side of their base is pretty low,” he says.

Pres­sure on Re­pub­lic­ans to re­solve the stan­doff without a sus­tained shut­down or de­fault, he says, is less likely to come from fear of re­pris­al by voters than “in­sti­tu­tion­al pres­sure” from the party’s core fin­an­cial sup­port­ers in busi­ness and the in­vest­ment in­dustry. “The people I ex­pect to make a dif­fer­ence in this are the Re­pub­lic­an fin­ance and cor­por­ate types who will be very, very un­happy, and that seg­ment of the Re­pub­lic­an Party that is re­spons­ive to them will force the House to [re­lent],” he said. “I think that’s the only way out of this.”

The same trend to­ward more pro­tec­ted dis­tricts emerges from an­oth­er meas­ure of par­tis­an com­pet­i­tion, The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port‘s Par­tis­an Vot­ing In­dex. That in­dex uses pres­id­en­tial vot­ing res­ults to as­sess each con­gres­sion­al dis­trict’s gen­er­ic par­tis­an strength re­l­at­ive to na­tion­al trends.

In 1995, the av­er­age dis­trict held by House Re­pub­lic­ans poin­ted to a GOP ad­vant­age of roughly 6.6 points on the Cook in­dex. Now, that’s in­creased by about two-thirds, with the av­er­age for House Re­pub­lic­ans stand­ing at a GOP ad­vant­age of 11.1.

Bey­ond those av­er­ages, the PVI data also show that the share of House Re­pub­lic­ans in over­whelm­ingly safe dis­tricts has soared, while the por­tion in even mar­gin­ally com­pet­it­ive seats has plummeted. In 1995, 12 House Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­en­ted ruby-red dis­tricts whose in­dex score leaned to­ward the GOP by at least 20 points; now 24 rep­res­ent such dis­tricts. In 1995, 25 House Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­en­ted dis­tricts with a Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing in­dex score of at least 15; now 61 rep­res­ent such dis­tricts.

Con­versely, back then, more than two-fifths of the Re­pub­lic­an caucus (105 mem­bers in all) rep­res­en­ted at least some­what com­pet­it­ive seats with a Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing in­dex score of 5 points or less. Today only about one-fifth of Re­pub­lic­ans (53 in all) rep­res­ent dis­tricts so closely bal­anced.

The risk for the GOP is that such in­su­la­tion will leave the House in­ured to po­ten­tial dam­age to the party’s over­all im­age from any shut­down or de­fault. Res­ults over the past week from the United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, a CBS/New York Times sur­vey, and a CNN/ORC poll have con­sist­ently found that around three-fifths of adults op­pose shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment to pur­sue changes in the health care law, with some in­dic­a­tions that num­ber may be rising as the stan­doff pro­ceeds.

Rep. Dav­id Price, D-N.C., a former polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist, says that the pro­lif­er­a­tion of safe GOP seats means that even if Re­pub­lic­ans re­ceive most of the blame for a shut­down, as polls sug­gest, “in these in­di­vidu­al dis­tricts maybe that’s no prob­lem; maybe it’s ac­tu­ally to their elect­or­al be­ne­fit.” If there is an elect­or­al cost for the GOP, he ar­gues, it will come through ali­en­at­ing the swing voters they need to win statewide elec­tions in closely con­tested states like North Car­o­lina. “This may be just fine for in­di­vidu­al Re­pub­lic­ans in ger­ry­mandered seats, but it isn’t fine at all for [the party’s] na­tion­al am­bi­tions,” he said. Speak­ing of his home state of North Car­o­lina, he ad­ded: “This cer­tainly en­hances the abil­ity to flip [the ] gov­ernor­ship in 2016, and the same thing ap­plies to the pres­id­ency.”

But vet­er­an GOP poll­ster Glen Bol­ger, in a blog post Monday, warned that his party may face the op­pos­ite risk of de­mo­bil­iz­ing their core sup­port­ers if they con­cede without ex­act­ing any con­ces­sions from Obama. “Re­pub­lic­ans have to get something tan­gible from this, or the base will be dev­ast­ated go­ing in­to 2014,” Bol­ger wrote. “That does not mean no com­prom­ise—last I looked, the Demo­crats con­trol two-thirds of the power in D.C., so the GOP is not go­ing to get everything it wants. But neither should the Demo­crats ex­pect to get everything they want either.”