Political scientists, especially in response to increased gerrymandering, have been concerned about the declining number of competitive or “marginal” House races. Because of the tremendous advantages that incumbents have in gaining re-election (recent cycles have seen re-election rates in the neighborhood of 95%) it is difficult for either party to gain seats, absent a large number of “open” seats in which no incumbent is running. Thus, leading into this year, many were skeptical of the ability of Democrats to capture the House majority. Now that we know that they did, we can begin to see how.
I’ve defined a “competitive” race as one in which the winning candidate received less than 60% of the vote. This year there were 2 races in which the Democrats picked up a previously held Republican seat by winning greater than 60% of the vote (IN8, OH18). These are clearly the exception to the norm. By focusing on competitive races, not only can we see more clearly whether one party outperformed another—beyond just looking at seats picked up or lost—but we can also begin to set the stage for the 2008 contest. Those races that were competitive in 2006 have the potential to be competitive in 2008, especially with the increased turnout of a presidential election year. So, what do we find?
Overall, there were 128 House races in which the winning candidate received less than 60% of the vote. Of these:
87 were won by Republicans
41 were won by Democrats
Of the 87 Republican wins:
78 were won by incumbents
9 were won by freshman members, all in open seat races previously held by a Republican (CA48, CO5, FL13, ID1, IL6, MI7, MN6, NE3, NV2)
No incumbent Democrat was defeated and no open seat previously held by a Democrat was won by a Republican.
Of the 41 Democratic wins:
11 were won by incumbents
30 were won by freshman members:
22 defeated Republican incumbents
8 won open seats
3 open seats were previously held by Democrats (IL17, MN5, VT- AL)
5 open seats were previously held by Republicans (AZ8, CO7, IA1, NY24, WI8)
What these numbers clearly show is that things could have been a whole lot worse for the Republicans. They won a tremendous number of close races and were able to mount a challenge to only a few Democratic incumbents. Only 6 of the Democratic incumbents got less than 55% (Barrow, Marshall, Bean, Boswell, Carson, Hooley).
Coming up---How did this year compare to 2004??