Political analysts have spotted Congressional districts where leadership is most likely to switch parties in the fall. Two-thirds of these teetering districts are decidedly rural.
The rurals are politically restless.
Of the Congressional districts thus far spotted as most likely to switch their party leadership this fall, nearly two-thirds (64%) are rural.
A team of NBC political reporters listed its “Field of 64” races to watch. Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg writing for “First Read” are calling their roster of shakable districts “the House battlefield.” (The Cook Report came up with its own nearly identical list of 73 “vulnerable” seats.)
Democrats fill 55 of these highly competitive seats, Republicans 9. If Republicans can retain the seats they hold now and win 39 of these tight races in November, the GOP will gain control of the House of Representatives.
By the measures campaign-watchers have made, disaffection is concentrated in rural districts now represented by Democrats. Of First Read’s “Field of 64,” 41 battleground Congressional districts are rural (with rural populations higher than the national average, of 21%. Find the complete list of most-contested district below). Several vulnerable incumbents represent the most rural Congressional districts in the nation. Up for grabs are Michigan’s first (located in the Upper Peninsula, the 5th most rural Congressional district in the country), Virginia’s 5th (the 10th most rural district), Mississippi’s 1st (the 15th most rural district), and Missouri’s 4th (the 17th most rural).
Regionally, however, the rural battleground districts are scattered all over the map – the Dakotas, the Pacific Northwest, the Deep South, the Midwest, and New England.
What’s happening to make rural incumbent Democrats especially vulnerable? The decline in Obama’s popularity and controversy surrounding major legislation on energy and health care, and the stimulus package as a whole, have some Democratic incumbents running from the President’s record and, in several cases, from their own voting records, too.
Kentucky’s Ben Chandler (D-KY6) who voted for Obama’s cap and trade energy bill in 2009, swerved to the right this year; he was one of 34 Democrats in the House who opposed the President’s health care legislation. But the coal industry hasn’t forgotten Chandler’s stand on energy. According to Roger Alford of AP, Chandler, among others, has been targeted by a group of mining companies now at work “to pool their money for a political offensive against Democrats in Kentucky and West Virginia they believe are anti-coal.”
As in Chandler’s case, breaking with the Democratic leadership and voting against Obama’s health care legislation hasn’t proven to be very good insurance for re-election. Of the 41 rural House Democrats listed as shakiest now, 13 voted against the health bill (more than a third of all the Democrats who opposed the bill).
Rep. Bart Stupak chose not to run for his Congressional seat again. Stupak (D-MI1) had been outspoken in his anti-abortion views during the debate on Obama’s massive health care bill. Ultimately, Stupak voted for the bill, and his Congressional seat, according to First Read, may be filled by a Republican in November.
The UP Michigan race is also indicative of new elements buffeting this election season, some seemingly chronic and others unpredictable. In Michigan there are three rural Congressional seats, all held by Democrats, that look up for grabs. This region has been hard hit by unemployment, and as the Cook Report points out, high unemployment is a strong predictor of current voter dissatisfaction.
But the Michigan campaigns are also responding to the ascendant Tea Party – or we should say, Tea Parties. In the GOP primary for Stupak’s seat, surgeon Dan Benishek won by only 15 votes. According to politico, Benishak “has considerable tea party support and campaigned with conservative darling Joe Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber.” Meanwhile, Michigan Republicans are filing suit against what they call a “fake” Michigan Tea Party — a group that as of last month had submitted the names and petitions necessary to be placed on the November ballot as an independent party.
Republicans are worried that having the “fake” Tea Party on the ballot will draw votes away from GOP candidates. The Petoskey News reports, “In the highly contested 1st Congressional district race for Congressman Bart Stupak’s seat, Lonnie Lee Snyder, 28, of Kawkawlin, was selected to represent the Tea Party. Snyder fails to qualify as a candidate because according the Michigan Secretary of State records, he is not a registered voter in his home county or anywhere else in Michigan.”
Whether allied with any tea party or not, more rural citizens nationwide are self-identifying as “independents,” according to a Ap-GfK poll. And “only 32% of those citing no allegiance to either major party say they want Democrats to keep control of Congress in this November’s elections.”
The increase in the number of self-identified rural independents has been especially swift in northern Florida, writes the Miami Herald. “The growth in no party affiliation has been strongest, as a percentage of registered voters, in four rural, north Florida counties – Calhoun, Columbia, Lafayette and Suwanee counties.” This is Florida’s 2nd Congressional district, designated a “battleground” by both First Read and the Cook Report and now represented by Democrat Allen Boyd.
Keeping the fall races tight may also be countervailing forces of fervor and cash. Most political analysts agree that the Republic Party is more unified going into the fall Congressional elections. But the Democrats have raised more money for campaigning.
The Associated Press reports, “The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has nearly $17 million more available than the National Republican Congressional Committee to spend this fall. And most of the Democrats’ threatened incumbents have a 2-to-1 cash advantage over their GOP challengers.”