This week’s primaries in Georgia that pitted several House Democrats against upstart African American candidates got me wondering if a similar dynamic could work against any Republican incumbents this fall. Namely, are there any House Republicans with sizable enough minority populations in their districts that, with high turnout, could be in danger of defeat?
Now, it should be noted that demographics are rarely, if ever enough, to endanger or defeat an incumbent. A number of factors must usually be at work. Incumbent House members are extremely difficult to defeat. The norm for both parties over the past decade or so has been for roughly 95% of House incumbents to be re-elected, most with large margins. Among the factors required for defeating an incumbent are 1) a high quality challenger; 2) a well funded challenger; 3) a political “mood” hostile to incumbents or the incumbent’s party; and 4) scandal and/or deficient job performance by the incumbent. In other words, challengers must hope that a number of things go right, both in and out of their control, to have a chance at victory.
A second thing I would note is that those districts with the highest minority populations are not necessarily those that the Democrats have the best chance of winning. If we look at 2006, for example, the Democrats defeated several Republican incumbents in very, very white constituencies (i.e. IA-2, IN-8, IN-9, MN-1, NY-20, NH-1, NH-2). So, looking toward the Democrats’ chances this fall, I wouldn’t make a direct correlation between the likelihood of a party switch and the minority population in a given district. Nonetheless, in a year which saw higher turnout and registration among African-Americans during the primary season and with Barack Obama on the top of the ticket (likely to increase black turnout even higher during the general), we might look at the demographic profile Republican districts for potential upsets.
Using my handy "CQ’s Politics in America 2008", I’ve tabulated the minority percentage (African-American and Hispanic) for each Republican held district. I’ve also recorded the vote total the incumbent received in 2006 to use as a baseline of expectations for 2008. Because 2006 was as bad a year as 2008 is shaping up to be for Republican congressional candidates, we would expect these Republicans’ support to be in the same neighborhood as two years ago. Using this data, we can crunch the numbers in a variety of ways in seeking to identify potentially vulnerable Republicans. So, what do we see???
Looking first at African American constituencies, we find that the Republican incumbent with the largest black constituency is Rep. Rodney Alexander of Louisiana's 5th with a district that is 34% black. In total, 5 members have districts that are roughly 1/3 black (Alexander, McCrery—LA-4, Forbes—VA-4, Pickering—MS-3, Rogers—AL-3). Of these, all are running for re-election this year with the exception of Pickering. In the next tier, 14 members have constituencies that are between 20% and 30% African American.
For these members with sizable black constituencies, is there any correlation with how easily they won in 2006? Here, there seems to be some evidence of what I’d call the “Schaller Effect,” for lack of a better term. As I’ve written about several times in the last month, Thomas Schaller argues that in those states with sizable African American electorates, namely those in the deep South, Republicans have actually increased their support over time because white voters have been drawn to the GOP in reaction to the Democratic support given by black voters and the perception that the Democrats are the “party of minorities.” Thus, states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina are among the most consistently Republican despite having the biggest black populations in the country. So, of the 19 House Republicans with at least 20% of their district being African American, only 3 received less than 55% of the vote in 2006. These were Steve Chabot of Ohio (District 27% black; 52% of the vote), Robin Hayes of North Carolina (District 27% black; 50% of the vote) and Thelma Drake of Virginia (District 21% black; 51% of the vote).
Overall, if we look at those Republicans that have sizable black constituencies, they are almost all southern. This shouldn’t surprise us given the distribution of the black population across the country. Of those 19 members with the “blackest” districts, only 2 are from outside the south (Steve Chabot and Pat Tiberi of Ohio). This discussion of the geographic spread of the black electorate—not to get too far off course—brings into play the whole debate about gerrymandering. In northern states, where black voters are much more concentrated in urban areas, we’ve seen the creation over the past few decades of “majority minority” districts in which overwhelmingly black seats are surrounded by overwhelmingly white seats, all thanks to the high degree of segregation in northern metropolitan areas (for a definitive study on segregation in America, see here). In the south, where the African American population is much more dispersed, and more heavily rural, one sees more “integrated” districts. Thus, a state like Alabama has 3 Republican incumbents (Rogers, Everett, and Bonner) that have large black constituencies (32%, 29%, 28% respectively). I'd note that in Alabama's 2nd, Terry Everett is retiring this year and Democrats are targeting the district as a potential pick up.
Turning to heavily Hispanic districts, 24 House Republicans have districts that are over 20% Hispanic. One caveat here is the Florida Republican membership with a large Cuban (and traditionally Republican) base. The districts of the Diaz Balart brothers (FL-21 and 25) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18) are over 60% Hispanic but have been strongly Republican (although they are, interestingly, competitive this year). Below them, these mostly Hispanic districts are all in either California, Texas, or New Mexico with the exception of Rep. Doc Hasting’s central Washington district that is 26% Hispanic. In these heavily Hispanic districts, we see that Republican performance in 2006 was better than it was in the more heavily African American districts. Of these top 24 seats, only 1 incumbent received less than 55%. This was Rep. Heather Wilson (NM-1), who is this year running for the open Senate seat in the state. Not surprisingly, Democrats are heavily targeting this seat in hopes of a pick-up.
Next, I combined the African-American and Hispanic numbers for an overall “minority population” for each Republican district. Are their districts that contain large numbers of both minority groups? For the most part, the answer is no. The black and Hispanic population is largely segregated by the redistricting process. Of the 199 Republican held House seats, only 11 are more than 10% black and 10% Hispanic. Of these, 7 are in the state of Texas. What’s so special about Texas?? While it is certainly a very diverse state, it is also the home of the infamous re-districting scheme of 2003 in which Texas Republicans redrew House districts out of cycle in attempt to maximize party gains. As I was entering these districts into the data set, the sophistication of the project really jumped out at me. What the state legislature was able to do, it seems, was find the perfect ratio of white to minority voters to ensure Republican victories—across a large number of districts. The Texas Republican in this group with the slimmest re-election victory in ’06, John Carter (TX-31) still managed to get 58% of the vote. All of the others surpassed 60%.
Of the four remaining Republicans with 10% of their constituencies being black and Hispanic, only Chris Shays (CT-4) had a close race in ’06, garnering 51%. As the northeast continues to trend Democratic, the always in jeopardy Shays will have to watch out for the possibility that increased black turnout this year will finally provide the tipping point for his district. The other three members in this category had greater success in ’06. Rep. Mario Diaz Balart (FL-25) received 59% (10% black, 62% Hispanic, largely Cuban), Frank LoBiondo (NJ-2) received 62% (14% black, 10% Hispanic), and Rep. Adam Putnam (FL-12) received 69% (12% black, 13% Hispanic).
Finally, I decided to use re-election margins as my starting point—i.e. of those members who had close races last time, do any of them have large minority populations? For all the Republican members, there are 8 who have at least 20% minority composition in their district and received less than 55% of the vote in ’06. Several of these members have already appeared in this analysis, but a few are new. These members are John Porter (NV-3) who received 49% (5% black, 16% Hispanic), Heather Wilson (NM-1) who received 50% (2% black, 43% Hispanic), Robin Hayes (NC-8) who received 50% (27% black, 7% Hispanic), Thelma Drake (VA-2) who received 51% (21% black, 4% Hispanic), Chris Shays (CT-4) who received 51% (11% black, 13% Hispanic), Steve Chabot (OH-1) who received 52% (27% black, 1% Hispanic), Ric Keller (FL-8) who received 53% (7% black, 18% Hispanic), and finally Brian Bilbray (CA-50) who also received 53% (2% black, 19% Hispanic).
So, when we look at the numbers closely, what seems to emerge are some, but not many, opportunities for Democrats to make gains by relying solely on the demographic characteristics of Republican constituencies. Also, Republican districts that have large minority populations tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the county. For African Americans, these districts are overwhelmingly in the deep South, an area where the Republican party has been in ascendance for the past generation. While recent Democratic successes in Mississippi and Louisiana—districts that were 26% and 33% African American respectively—are certainly positive signs, I wouldn’t expect realignment scale change in the region. The strength of these incumbents should allow them to hold their seats, even if black turnout spikes this year. Those districts with large Hispanic populations also tend to be geographically concentrated. Here, we see incumbents also relatively insulated from Democratic challenges by having large numbers of reliably Republican whites concentrated in their constituencies. This is especially true in Texas.
What I haven’t done in this analysis, and what I’ll start turning to next, is look at how these races are shaping up this year in terms of the Democratic candidates being run in these districts. As I mentioned at the outset, one can’t expect demographics to be enough to turn a district, even with higher than normal turnout. You still need quality, skilled, and well funded challengers. Nonetheless, in a year in which demography has been one of the strongest predictors of voting—especially for the Democrats in their presidential primary—its useful to look at some of these characteristics to gauge the likelihood of certain outcomes in November.