As has been noted here before, political geography is not necessarily political destiny. In other words, a congressional or legislative district’s partisan leanings do not faultlessly predict the results of every election or every vote.
That said, what’s interesting in the wake of the House vote to approve the Senate’s “fiscal cliff” legislation is how Ohio’s lopsided congressional districts contributed to a nasty split in the state’s Republican delegation.
All five Democrats voted in favor of the bill, but the Republicans were divided, six voting in favor and seven opposed.
Why the unwillingness of a majority of the GOP delegation to follow Speaker John Boehner’s lead in voting for the Senate’s compromise?
Part of the answer lies in how the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature did its party a favor by packing Democrats into super-majority districts, giving the GOP the advantage elsewhere. As a result, Ohio has only two districts that can be considered competitive, based on how much better a Republican candidate can expect to do compared to the national presidential election results.
Once a district is rigged to give a congressional candidate a 5 percentage-point advantage, it is no longer considered competitive. By that standard, only one Republican “no” vote on the fiscal cliff bill came from a swing district, where one might expect the pressure of competition to result in a willingness to seek compromise solutions.
(This analysis is based on Ohio’s redrawn congressional districts, from which candidates ran in 2012 and from which they will seek re-election until after the next census.)
In the Dayton area, Republican Mike Turner is in the most competitive district in the state, with a political index giving a Republican congressional candidate a 2 percentage-point advantage. During the campaign, he talked about compromise. Then he was re-elected with 60 percent of the vote.
In all other cases, the “no” votes came from districts where Republicans enjoy at least a 5 percentage-point advantage, with some as high as 9 percentage points.
Among members of the local congressional delegation, only Jim Renacci voted against the Senate’s bipartisan bill, issuing a strongly worded statement attacking “Washington’s spending addiction” when the real issue was finding a compromise to avoid tax increases on the middle class.
During the campaign in Ohio’s new 16th U.S. House District, the business owner and former Wadsworth mayor stressed his willingness to reach across the aisle, pointing frequently to his role in starting a bipartisan breakfast club.
Renacci won re-election, in a tough race against U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, a Copley Township Democrat, after they were put in the same district. But the victory was nothing like Turner’s, Renacci winning by about 4 percentage points in a district where a Republican should have a 5-point advantage.
Some might consider that a signal that the district might be more competitive than it looks, but not Renacci, who appears focused on cutting taxes and spending as the answer to all economic ills. He appears to be banking on his “no” vote to cement the allegiance of his conservative base for his next re-election drive.
Speaker Boehner voted for the Senate bill even though his new district in southwestern Ohio gives him a whopping 14 percentage-point advantage. In uncompetitive districts, the real danger for an incumbent is a primary challenge. For a Republican, that means a GOP candidate who outflanks on the right.
But Boehner is a skillfull, well-funded campaigner who is expected to be re-elected as speaker today, which would pretty much end any chance of a primary battle two years from now.
The lack of competitive districts in Ohio is by no means unusual, Republicans using their dominance of state governments to ram through redistricting plans designed to maximize the party’s advantage.
Political analyst Nate Silver, whose blog for the New York Times accurately predicted President Obama’s re-election, has tracked a steady decline in the number of swing districts across the country. He estimates there are now only 35 competitive districts, down from 103 in 1992.
To be sure, redistricting is not entirely to blame. Silver also points to an increasingly polarized political climate, with far less ticket-splitting, and to the growing tendency of liberal voters to migrate to the cities, with conservatives favoring suburban and rural areas.
But there is no mistaking the role Ohio’s gerrymandered districts played in the revolt of some House members against the compromise sent over from the Senate, or for the need to repair the way districts lines are drawn, to inject more competition into the process.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at email@example.com.