Voices & Choices

Six Democratic holdouts on impeachment show the power of partisanship

Six Democratic holdouts on impeachment show the power of partisanship

When it comes to elections to the House of Representatives, partisanship dominates. 

That is, the most reliable predictor for how voters will vote is not how much money is spent by the candidates or how effectively they campaign, but how much the voters prefer Republicans to Democrats or vice-versa, all else being equal. FairVote’s partisanship metric, as described in our biennial report, Monopoly Politics, provides a simple way of measuring partisanship.

The partisanship of the median House district is R + 2.1%, meaning that all else being equal, about 52.1% of voters in the median district prefer Republicans to Democrats. That is a simple demonstration of how the winner-take-all system used to elect the House of Representatives creates a measurable bias in favor of Republicans. It also means that in order for Democrats to win a majority in the House in 2020 as they did in 2018, they need to persuade Republican-leaning voters to vote for them. One way Democratic incumbents do that is by distinguishing themselves on highly partisan issues.

For example, all but six Democrats in the House support the impeachment inquiry in President Trump, as profiled in a recent piece in the Washington Post. Here are those six representatives: Collin Peterson (MN), Anthony Brindisi (NY), Kendra Horn (OK), Joe Cunningham (SC), Jared Golden (ME), and Jeff Van Drew (NJ). 

Compare that list of six Democrats to the six Democrats representing the most Republican-leaning districts that Democrats won in 2018: Collin Peters (MN), Anthony Brindisi (NY), Kendra Horn (OK), Joe Cunningham (SC), Jared Golden (ME), and Xochitl Torres (NM). Five of the six names are the same. The sixth Democrat opposed to the impeachment inquiry, Jeff Van Drew, also represents a Republican-leaning district -- the 14th most heavily Republican district represented by a Democrat.

These are crossover representatives -- members elected to districts that favor the opposite party. Such representatives have strong incentives to buck the party line from time to time if they want to win opposite-party voters in the next election. In fact, of the six Democrats not supporting the impeachment inquiry, five were elected for the first time in 2018. The only one who was not -- Colin Peterson -- has a record of voting with Republicans more than other Democrats. For instance, he has voted in line with Donald Trump’s expressed preferences 50.4% of the time -- more than any other Democrat in the House. Maintaining a moderate voting record has undoubtedly contributed to his ability to keep winning in his heavily-Republican district, which he has held continuously since 2002.

There are 38 Democrats representing districts that lean Republican to some degree. Of those, 28 were elected for the first time in 2018 -- eight in open seats and 20 by beating Republican incumbents. Crossover representatives like these historically have maintained more moderate voting patterns than other members of their caucus, so it is no surprise we are seeing some of these Democrats bucking the positions taken by the party leadership.

On the other side of the aisle, only two Republicans represent Democratic-leaning districts: John Katko (NY-24) and Will Hurd (TX-23). Congressman Hurd will not seek re-election in 2020.

FairVote is presently developing a written report to accompany Monopoly Politics 2020, our projections for the 2020 congressional elections, which we published only three days after the 2018 general elections. That report will show how partisanship dominates electoral outcomes under our winner-take-all system, resulting in much of the broken political patterns we see in our democracy. Accompanying it, the Fair Representation Act Report will also have a new 2020 edition demonstrating how a statutory change to our election methods could largely resolve these issues and give us a more fair and functional “people’s house.”

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