Congressional approval ratings at an all-time low; one of the least productive sessions ever; health care rollout fiasco; paralyzing, polarized partisanship run amok… a rational political observer would think the 2014 cycle would be one of potentially historic upheaval and a district-by-district battle royale for majority control of the House this November.
Ah, but you would be wrong. Centrist and independent voters (frankly, any voter hoping for competitive elections) getting a chance to make a difference, get involved, have a say in congressional elections this cycle? Save for in a few competitive congressional seats and in states fortunate enough to have competitive senatorial/gubernatorial contests, in the inimitable words of Bill Murray’s Tripper in Meatballs: “it just doesn’t matter” what you do.
Mark Barabak had an excellent campaign forecast column in a New Year’s day piece in the LA Times, “A keep-the-bums-in mood may prevail in midterm election.”
Barabak’s bottom line: Voters are fed up with congress and want to replace their current representative (which never used to be the case) — but they dislike the other party even more than their own member of congress. A mid-term election (usually favoring the party not in the White House), better R turnout in nonpresidentials, and congressional districts so overwhelmingly gerrymandered to protect one party or the other, the chances of a congressional political tsunami to earn 17+ seats for D’s are really slim. The same holds for congressional Republicans — they’re unlikely to pick up (or lose) many seats. I’ll wager Boehner comfortably holds on to the Speaker’s gavel. The 2014 congressional election? Looks like a “meh” year — at least for the House.
The parties don’t agree with each other about much — except when it comes to colluding to protect each other’s safe congressional seats every ten years. Which means harder partisans on either end of the spectrum are rewarded for their partisanship by winning their respective primaries in safe-seat districts. The more orthodox a Republican in a safe Republican seat is much likely to win an intraparty primary if opposed by a centrist/moderate. Same goes for the D’s. So much so that, over time, the red districts get redder, the blue districts bluer. As the entrenched, hyperpartisan ranks grow, chances for collaborative compromise and effective leadership in Washington diminish.
By some estimates, there are only 30-40 competitive seats nationally (that’s probably high) that become the perennial battlegrounds for the parties. The parties/committees know it, the political class/media know it, their affiliate lobbyists, 527’s, 501(c)(4)’s and IE’s know it. So the competitive districts get hammered with earlier and earlier ads, mail, calls while the safe seats barely warrant mentioning. (If you live in the Denver DMA you’ve no doubt already seen/heard the interest groups already getting busy in CO6 with Coffman/Romanoff ads.
Of course, US Senate 2014 campaigns could be a lot different and a lot more interesting (and determine the chances for any action for the president in his last two, lame-duck years in office.). Much more exposed to current events, presidential approval ratings, and without the benefit of carved up, safe districts, senators have to run statewide and are more susceptible to swing, centrist voters’ shifting alliances. Competitive (leaning R in a lot of them) races in North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, West Virginia, Montana — and maybe, Colorado? (not holding my breath CO R’s are gonna get their act together this cycle) — put the Senate in play (R’s need 5 to take the Senate.)
So what does it all mean for centrists and independents wanting to have a voice in states without a competitive senate race or in the 400-ish non-competitive congressional seats?
Most likely, you won’t have much of a chance to be heard. The partisans will continue to own the process they created.
Regardless that the candidate who wins the center determines winners in most general elections, until centrists and independents force primary election reform to give centrist candidates a chance to compete, until reformed redistricting creates more competitive districts and until focused centrist/independent organizations are created to provide balance to an unbalanced election system, our paralyzed partisan politics will continue to be broken.
So until then, centrists, independents and partisans hoping to change the system…. It just doesn’t matter.