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The Non-Sequitur Times

Boy oh boy. The New York Times' Adam Nagourney really pulled some rabbits out of his hat on Thursday with his ode to how CA 50 is a portent of Republican doom, did he not? The piece reads as if, fully intending to write a "GOP is doomed" storyline regardless of the actual result, he sat down Wednesday morning and came up with every last reason he could think of why the Republican win was really a loss - and then did not go back through the list to toss out the ones that do not pass the smell test.

The smelliest assertion was the following:

Of the 10 most competitive races for House seats now held by Republicans, as identified by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, only 2 had Republican margins of victory in 2004 greater than the one posted by Mr. Cunningham here that year. Of those two, one is held by Representative Bob Ney of Ohio, who is under federal investigation in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the other by Representative Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who is retiring.
Outside mathematics, you probably cannot get closer to a tautology than this.

As any quality congressional analyst will tell you, one of the major criteria of placing a race on a "most vulnerable" list is the incumbent's share of the vote in the previous election. This is, as a matter of fact, the key reason. So, to make note of the fact that incumbents who won close scrapes are on a vulnerable list is to do little more than restate the definition of a vulnerable list. That is essentially what a vulnerable list is.

There are usually two other reasons why districts are on a vulnerable list. The first is whether they are open seats. The reason for this is that open seats tend to vote according to the district's partisan division - which gives the out-party a better opportunity to win (as their partisans will be much less likely to vote for the other party). The second is whether there is a scandal in the district. The reason for this is that races that feature incumbents usually turn on the voters' evaluations of the incumbent. A scandalous incumbent invariably prompts negative reviews, followed by votes for the out-party. This speaks to the limitations of partisanship - it is why Chicago's North Side voted out Rosty in 1994, why Ney is so endangered despite facing a 4th rate challenger, why DeLay is packing up his office today, and why Nancy Pelosi would breathe a big sigh of relief if William Jefferson would just resign.

So, that only 2 other races feature Republicans with a margin of victory greater than Cunningham's is, in part, a consequence of the fact that there are more incumbent-held seats than open seats on Mr. Cook's vulnerable list. This is the GOP's SINGLE GREATEST STRENGTH this cycle. They are defending relatively few open seats. If the GOP had as many vulnerable open seats this year as the Democrats had in 1994 (4-to-5 compared to 28), the Party of Lincoln would be all-but-sunk.

Accordingly, to the extent that Nagourney is not speaking tautologically, he is exactly wrong.