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Why only 1 Texas congressional race is competitive


Texas has 36 congressional districts, second only to California, but only one seat appears to be competitive heading into early voting next week — District 23, a vast West Texas seat that has switched between Republican and Democratic hands in each of the last three elections.

Elsewhere, 23 Republicans and 10 Democrats are likely to win re-election, by dint of gerrymandering and the power of incumbency. Only two Texas districts are open seats — District 15, a predominantly Hispanic and Democratic-leaning district in South Texas, and District 19, a largely rural and heavily Republican district in parts of West Texas and the Panhandle where no Democrat is on the ballot.

In Central Texas, all six members of Congress who represent a slice of Austin are sitting on large war chests but running light campaigns. Each Austin incumbent had more than $200,000 on hand as of Sept. 30, with Democrat Lloyd Doggett topping the list with more than $3 million on hand. No challenger in those races has more than $30,000, and many have no money on hand.

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“We know for a fact incumbency is powerful,” said Chad Long, an associate professor of political science at St. Edward’s University. “It’s the single most powerful predictor of congressional elections, even more than the money. If you have an incumbent in the election, you pretty much know who’s going to win.”

According to Long, a district is considered competitive when the winning candidate garners no more than 55 percent of the vote. Under this definition, only two of the six U.S. House members representing the Austin area have ever experienced a competitive race — Doggett and Republican Michael McCaul.

Doggett, who was first elected in 1994, received just 52.8 percent of the vote in the 2010 general election. He has won comfortably in every other election. In 2006 and 2008, McCaul won with 55.3 and 53.9 percent respectively. Since then, McCaul has won every general election with at least 60 percent of the vote.

Emily Sydnor, a Southwestern University visiting assistant political science professor, said incumbents can snag easy victories because we tend to “like our congressman, even if we don’t like Congress.”

“But it’s also because the districts are drawn in such a way that they privilege the people that are already in them,” she said.

Redistricting

The Legislature is required to redraw lines for congressional districts and state House and Senate districts every decade, using data from the U.S. Census. Congressional districts are required to have roughly equal population and must be drawn in a way that doesn’t disenfranchise minority groups. In 2010, Texas gained four seats in Congress to accommodate an uptick in the state’s population.

The state’s lawmakers tend to push for district boundaries that will ensure a victory for the most Republicans possible, said Brian Smith, a St. Edward’s University political science professor.

“As long as our state Legislature remains very partisan, they’re going to draw districts that way,” he said.

In Austin, where residents can easily drive through multiple districts during their daily commute, challengers must compete against entrenched incumbents, but also against a heightened national focus on the presidential campaign.

“It’s much easier to pay attention to the big ticket races — I cannot walk out the door without knowing who is running for president,” Sydnor said. “If I’m the average Texan or American who has a limited time to focus on politics outside of all my daily responsibilities, I’m going to look to what is most easily available to me. That’s less likely to be specific information about who is running for Congress.”

It’s even less likely for voters to know about third-party candidates, according to Smith, especially because they have limited name recognition and tend to fund campaigns themselves.

Landslides

The members of Congress representing Austin won general elections by the widest margins when they were the only major-party candidate running. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from San Antonio, who represents parts of downtown Austin, West Campus, Old West Austin and South Austin, won in 1998 with 91.4 percent of the vote when his only challenger was a Libertarian candidate. In races with Democrats on the ballot, Smith, who was first elected in 1986, has received no less than 60 percent of the vote.

All six Austin-area congressional races include Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and Green Party candidates.

“People don’t vote when elections aren’t competitive,” Brian Smith said. “Good candidates don’t run if they know they’re going to lose. People don’t give money to people if they know they’re going to lose.

For voters frustrated with the state of noncompetitive congressional races, Smith said the answer is simple: Texans have to pay closer attention to down-ballot races for state-level lawmakers responsible for drawing district lines.

“It’s so important to vote,” Smith said. “We think our vote doesn’t matter, but it matters for little things like who is going to draw the district lines. It does start with voting.”



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