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The Human Almanac

By Reid Wilson

Within the more than 1800 pages of the Almanac of American Politics, the true political junkie will find everything they ever wanted to know about the national landscape. Within Charles Mahtesian's head is every detail that goes into the book.

The editor of this massive tome recently sat down with Real Clear Politics to offer his take on the state of American politics and offered a preview of the races to watch for 2008. This reporter has edited his own questions for clarity, but Mahtesian requires no editing.

RCP: You've looked at every race around the country. 2006 was a huge year for Democrats. Is that a sign of things to come, or are we still an evenly divided country?

Charles Mahtesian: What's important about 2006 is that Democrats have finally broken out of their demographic straight jacket, in terms of the districts that they now possess. Because I think what's often been overlooked is, since 1994, Democrats have largely been confined to the same kind of districts, which is urban-oriented big city districts and districts with a large college or university component to them.

They didn't hold as many suburban districts as they once held. They didn't hold as many rural districts. They didn't hold very many Southern districts. As a result of 2006, they've really broken through and that's going to be a tremendous advantage to the party as it shapes its message going forward.

As Republicans expanded their majority, they expanded control into districts they hadn't held in many years, and that forced them to temper their message and craft it in ways that they weren't accustomed to before, which made them a stronger party.

RCP: What races demonstrated those trends?

CM: I think the fact that Democrats ran well in Southern Indiana, those are the kind of districts that are revealing. That's one place to look at, and you see that in the way Nancy Pelosi is crafting the party's message and shepherding the party's freshmen, protecting the vulnerable freshmen. They're very acutely aware of the dangers that those freshmen face going forward in 2008, and it's really shaped the way she's approached her job.

RCP: What were some of the under-reported stories in 2006, races we didn't pay attention to that are indicative of something bigger to come?

CM: You could look anywhere on the landscape and find an example of an interesting story, some of which were reported and some of which weren't. Clearly the Northeast has become the new South. That was just waiting to pop. The Northeast was waiting to pop for Democrats in the same way the South was pregnant with possibilities for Republicans in the early 1990s, and they finally made their breakthrough in 1994, picked up a bunch of districts that have long since turned Republican, only to be held by popular veteran Democrats. As soon as they left their seats, those seats turned.

You saw something similar in the Northeast in 2006, although really it was veteran incumbents who were knocked out in many of those cases. So I though that was pretty interesting. You know, the Northeast is now the flip side of the South, a region where one party is on life support.

One under-reported story is that, I think, the DCCC did a very good job of recruiting candidates in 2006. And I know that there's this myth out there that somehow Emanuel did not do a great job. But he did a terrific job in 2006 in finding the right candidates for the right districts, and he's not the only one. Schumer did the same thing in the Senate. You see candidates like Heath Shuler, Bob Casey, candidates that were just very well suited for their constituencies. Brad Ellsworth is another example.

RCP: So was 2006 an anomaly?

CM: I don't think it was an anomaly at all, although I don't think the Democrats have necessarily locked in their gains. I mean, it doesn't look like, at this point, the Republicans are going to take back the majority anytime soon, certainly the way things are playing out at this early stage. But to me, at least, it doesn't seem as if there was much of a mandate in 2006, and to the Democrats' credit, they understand that. They understand that it's still a very precarious majority going forward. But I don't think you're going to see an enormous snap-back election in 2008 where Republicans make enormous gains and even pick up the majority.

RCP: The ten fastest-shrinking districts in the nation are all held by Democrats, and are all in the Rust Belt and the Northeast. Nine of the ten fastest-growing districts are Republican-held seats, and the tenth is Tom DeLay's old seat that narrowly went to Democrats in 2006. What do those trends suggest about redistricting and reapportionment in 2012?

CM: That's a great story going forward that hasn't yet played out. In one sense, it's the same old story: The Rust Belt and the Northeast are hemorrhaging population and the Sun Belt is growing and adding congressional districts. You're seeing the same kind of trend that has existed for decades now.

What's going to make it very interesting is when you look at the slowest growing districts and the districts that are losing population, most of them are Democrats and most are around big cities. Which poses the question, what are these legislatures going to do when it comes time for redistricting?

To what extent are Black Caucus members going to be willing to take in more white voters, because they're going to need to expand their districts. So Democrats are going to have to come to grips with that: What are they going to do to deal with that hemorrhaging population in the big city areas?

It highlights the importance of controlling the legislatures and the governorships. I don't think we're quite focused enough on that in Washington, at least, but certainly it looks very good at this moment, four years out or three years out for the Democratic Party in terms of controlling state legislatures and governorships.

RCP: What does the population shift toward the Sunbelt say about future partisan control of Congress?

CM: I don't think it's as promising for Republicans as it looks on the surface, and that's largely because ultimately it's not necessarily population that's going to dictate control of the House. What's going to dictate control of the House is who controls legislatures and governorships, because of the gerrymandering issue.

Pennsylvania, for example, some of the Rust Belt states are going to lose a seat, but when the music stops, who's going to be left without a chair? It's probably going to be a Republican in many of these places. So I wouldn't necessarily equate the loss of seats in Rust Belt areas with Democratic losses.

RCP: Are there any states undergoing particularly dramatic population shifts or changes in demographics?

CM: Georgia, to me, is one of the most fascinating states. In many ways it's becoming the new heartland of the Republican Party. Because they've had dramatic changes in the state legislature in terms of a Republican ascendance. They were one of the latest Deep South states to really go Republican, and when it broke, over the last couple election cycles, it broke hard toward the Republican Party.

What's interesting there is that they're having a tremendous influx of immigrants to Northern Georgia, and it's really effecting it's politics in many ways. You see that reflected in Congress, too. Georgia members of Congress have been in many ways at the forefront of the illegal immigration debate. And what's interesting about that is that people don't necessarily think of Georgia when they think of the illegal immigration debate.

What people often forget is that the reason why it's now so firmly implanted on our national consciousness is the issue has finally leap-frogged the Southwestern border states. So it can't easily be dismissed as a border issue anymore, an issue for California and Arizona and Texas to deal with. Immigrants follow jobs, and they're now leap-frogging traditional destination states to places like Georgia, to places like the Northeast. Illegal immigration isn't just a Texas issue anymore, or an Arizona issue. It's a Georgia issue, it's a Long Island, New York issue. And that's why you see a lot of Democrats taking very cautious positions on illegal immigration because they can't afford to get caught on the wrong side of it.

If you look at, for example, the breakdown of the border fence vote, you'll find a surprising number of Democrats that backed that bill, the kind of members who you might guess would not be supportive of an idea like that.

RCP: You mention that Georgia only recently went Republican. Democrats still hold state legislative chambers in Mississippi, Oklahoma and other ruby-red states. How are Democrats keeping those seats?

CM: They're all staying Democratic for reasons that are specific to their states alone. Mississippi, for whatever reason, the courthouse culture was far more resistant to change than some of the other states. All of the best political fights occur within the Democratic Party anyway at the state level. Numerous parties within one party, that's where their ideological battles play out.

Oklahoma's different. Henry's just a great candidate. It's a place where a talented politician has found a middle ground in a fairly conservative state. Democrats are getting very smart like that. They have a number of politicians who fit that mold. You've got Dave Freudenthal in Wyoming, Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas, Brad Henry. They're really deep in talent at the gubernatorial level right now. Probably the equivalent to the 1990s era of Republican governors.

There's just a lot more depth these days. And Democrats have gotten smart about the kind of candidates they nominate in states that are not necessarily all that friendly to them.

RCP: What was the most surprising thing you learned during the course of researching the Almanac?

CM: The point that I mentioned before, about Democrats breaking out of their narrow straight jacket, to me was the most interesting. Because when you are narrowly confined to the same kind of congressional district, it really affects your outlook. It means you are unable to pick up emerging trends. You have a political tin ear.

They really were a party with a bunch of districts that were just echo chambers. So they really couldn't understand why, how could George Bush be re-elected? Why didn't everyone want to impeach him? Because those members would go home to districts that were just virulently anti-Bush and they really, I thought, missed out on a lot of emerging issues that way and really didn't have a great grasp on where the country was on a lot of different issues, whether it was the Iraq war or national security, and that all changed in 2006, I think.

The other interesting thing is the up and coming freshmen, who the real players are. So that's another thing to look at. Who are the future leaders of the party? Who are the real players and people to watch?

RCP: So who are your early favorites?

CM: On the Republican side, the pick of the litter is Kevin McCarthy. That, to me, is very clear. I think he's the real star of that class. The Democrats, on the other side, I think have maybe more talent, largely because the size of their class was much bigger. Someone who I think is very talented is Kathy Castor, of Florida. You could see some emerging players, it looks like Keith Ellison is going to be the new John Conyers.

It's interesting to see who's going to be around, who are the one-term wonders.

RCP: Anybody who should be worried about being a one-term wonder?

CM: There are some people who probably would not have been elected in a normal election year. In a traditional election cycle, candidates like Carol Shea-Porter, and maybe Nancy Boyda and Jerry McNerney would have had difficulty winning. And so those are the members that need to be the most careful about the way they carry themselves going forward.

RCP: What are some of the races you're most looking forward to watching next year?

CM: The Boyda race is very, very interesting, for lots of reasons. The rubber matches are always a terrific race to watch. They're always bitter, there's lots of money spent, and it's always a great opportunity to see whether the so-called fluke candidates have established a set of political skills in the two years they've held office.

If you take a look at what's happened in Kansas recently, you see another example of a bloody primary that's going to end up biting them in the behind. Certainly that works in Boyda's favor. But Boyda's made some less than judicious comments that have really not played well in her district. But otherwise, most of the other freshmen I think have been very smart about crafting their message to their districts. And that includes some members that are probably, you know, their politics don't match their districts real well.

Washington State's a great match, because Rossi is a talented retail politician. I think there's still a lot of resentment in the state about the way the last election played out. But at the same time, Gregoire has a pretty substantive record that she can point to, which will raise some interesting questions for voters. What's more important, do you need to be comfortable stylistically with your governor? That's a great race.

Missouri's a great race too. Matt Blunt has really struggled, and been an unpopular governor. It will be interesting to see what happens in North Carolina in the governor's race. That's a seat that's been in Democratic control for a long time, and Democrats are as strong in North Carolina as they are anywhere in the South, so it will be interesting to see whether they can hold on.

In terms of the Senate races, we'll have a pretty good sense of what 2008 is going to be like from some of the Senate races, too. If you take a look at people like Saxby Chambliss, John Cornyn, Elizabeth Dole, those are members who, I think, in a less volatile climate, would have an easier time getting elected. However, I think the volatility surrounding the Iraq war and the branding problem the Repbulicans have could have a substantial effect on their fates in 2008.

If, in the summer of 2008, John Cornyn, Dole and Saxby Chambliss or Lamar Alexander are in trouble, then it's probably going to be a bad year for the Republican Party.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

Copyright 2007, RealClearPolitics


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