Friday, August 08, 2008

Could We Ever See an "Inverse-Cohen" Dynamic???

As I was reading and writing about yesterday’s House primary in Tennesse, and the unusual racial dynamic that ran through it—Congressman Steve Cohen is the only white member of Congress representing a majority black district—I thought I’d explore whether or not a similar dynamic could happen, only in reverse. In other words, among the African American membership in Congress, how many of them represent districts with sizable white or Hispanic populations? Could challengers emerge among these groups arguing that they are a “better fit” for the constituency?

There are currently 40 African American voting members of the House (not counting D.C. and the Virgin Islands). I broke down their constituencies to look at the size of the white, black, and Hispanic population. What do we find???

Back during the 90’s when a wave “racial gerrymandering” created districts designed to elect more African Americans to Congress, it was assumed that these districts’ composition would be overwhelmingly black. In reality, the black proportion of each district is not as high as we might think. Across these 40 members, the district averages are: 49% African American; 33% white; and 13% Hispanic. No House district is more than 65% black (IL-01: Bobby Rush). Another nine are between 60% and 65% black.

Overall, we see a much more nuanced constituency composition:

24 are Majority African American
7 are Plurality African American
4 are Majority white (Andre Carson: IN-07; Emanuel Cleaver: MO-05; Keith Ellison: MN-05; Gwen Moore: WI-04)
2 are Plurality white (Barbara Lee: CA-09; David Scott: GA-13)
3 are Plurality Hispanic (Charles Rangel: NY-15; Laura Richardson: CA-37; Maxine Waters: CA-35)

Despite this relative diversity, we do not find a membership that is in much electoral jeopardy. These are all Democratic House members and have, for the most part, very safe seats. Across the 40 members, the average vote percentage in 2006 (plus 2 special elections this year—Carson and Richardson) was 83.5%. 12 members were unopposed in 2006. Overall, only 3 received less than 60% (Carson—54%; Ellison—56%; William Jefferson of Louisiana’s 2nd got 57% despite a pending indictment and Louisiana’s special runoff elections).

So, if we are to hypothesize about the feasibility of a strictly racially based opposition to these members, there are a handful of members who could be vulnerable. However, the challenge will have to be in the primary given how overwhelmingly Democratic these seats are. Given what we saw yesterday in Tennessee, though, we can be thankful that such base appeals to voters seem to be bearing very little fruit. While the advantages of incumbency are certainly at work here, voters in House races seem to be increasingly willing to vote for candidates of other races.

No comments: