Jim Renacci, the former mayor of Wadsworth who now represents Ohio’s 16th U.S. House District, likes to talk up the bipartisan breakfast club he founded soon after starting his first term in 2011.
Now with 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, the group operates outside the glare of television lights, tackling, says Renacci, tough issues such as weak economic growth and the debt, or, as the congressman puts its, “the real problems that Americans care about.”
But, really, who cares?
Although he experienced a tough re-election campaign in 2012, when redistricting put him in the same territory as another incumbent, Betty Sutton, a Copley Township Democrat, Renacci enjoys a built-in advantage as he looks ahead to next year’s re-election.
Republicans in the state legislature managed to create two gerrymandered, Republican-leaning, congressional districts in Northeast Ohio, traditionally Democratic bastions.
Renacci has one of the them, a district (parts of Summit, Portage, Medina and Stark counties and all of Wayne County) in which he can expect a 6 percentage-point advantage, according to the Cook Partisan Index, based on past voting results.
In such districts, incumbents usually face the greatest threat from a primary challenger, creating a strong incentive to avoid being outflanked on the right. So, it should not have come as a big surprise that Renacci left behind the spirit of his breakfast club and voted against last week’s bipartisan agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling and reopen the federal government.
And, given the lopsided congressional districts across the state, it should not have come as a surprise that eight of Ohio’s 12-member Republican delegation opposed the bipartisan compromise, bucking House Speaker John Boehner, who is from West Chester. (All four Democrats voted for the compromise.)
As the next round of budget negotiations gets under way, the strong grip of Republican-dominated state legislatures on congressional redistricting stands as a major impediment to efforts to reach across the aisle to find common ground on the spending and revenue issues that must be addressed if long-term financial problems are to be avoided.
Ohio is hardly alone. In an interview this week, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman estimated that 95 percent of Republican members of the U.S. House come from districts where Mitt Romney won the presidential election. Portman, a Cincinnati Republican, voted for the compromise last week, but can’t count on his House colleagues for support as he takes part in trying to avoid another crisis.
A recent report from the League of Women Voters of Ohio, Predictable Results, shows why gerrymandered districts create so little room for compromise.
The league devised its own voting index for the districts, as redrawn by the Republican-dominated state legislature after the 2010 census.
The index was completely accurate, Democrats winning in the four safe districts into which they were packed by Republicans, and Republicans winning the rest, in which their candidates had an advantage.
The shape of the districts had a profound effect, the league found. Overall, Ohio Republicans running for the U.S. House in 2012 received 51 percent of the vote, but won 75 percent of the seats.
The report showed similar disparities in races for the Ohio House, where Democratic candidates got 51 percent of the vote but won only 39 of 99 seats. In the Senate, Republicans won 68 percent of the vote and 15 of the 18 seats up for election, a reflection of six Republican candidates who faced no Democratic opposition. (Legislative districts are drawn by a state board, which was dominated by Republican officeholders.)
Such districts don’t guarantee victories by radicals from the left and right, but they do create an atmosphere that makes compromise very difficult. In other words, the Ohio Republicans who rejected compromise last week are likely to be seen as heroes in their districts, thus cutting the legs off any potential tea party challengers.
Redistricting reform under discussion at the Statehouse would prevent one party from completely controlling district lines. Unfortunately, it is stalled, Republicans having little interest. What they risk is another drive to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, giving voters a chance to take action to create fair districts, and ease the gridlock.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at email@example.com.