A couple of weeks ago, Bernie Mihm Jr. of Dickerson, Md. wrote a thoughtful letter to The Post replying to a column I had written. I have been meaning to offer a response, but got distracted by the recent elections.
Mihm was replying to a column I had written on Oct. 21 about the Republican civil war in New York’s 23rd congressional district. I argued that “middle-of-the-road voters who had populated the moderate Republican heartland, notably in suburban areas of the Northeast and Midwest, shifted steadily Democratic, turned off by the increasing dominance of Southern conservatives in the party of Lincoln.” Such voters, I said, “threw solid Republican moderates out of office -- among them Connie Morella in Maryland, Jim Leach in Iowa and Chris Shays in Connecticut -- not because they disliked these champions of the middle way but because all three came to be seen as enablers of a right-wing congressional majority.” (This was written before conservatives actually did drive the moderate-to-liberal Republican nominee in the 23d, Dede Scozzafava, out of the race.)
In his letter, Mihm agreed with my lager point, but said that “Mrs. Morella was the victim of that old bipartisan tradition of gerrymandering,” since Democrats “redrew her district” for the 2002 election. “Although she did carry the precincts of her original district in 2002,” he wrote, “the newly added residents gave her opponent, Chris Van Hollen, enough votes to win the seat.”
Mihm is entirely right about Morella being a victim of a redistricting. (And I also agree with his description of her “liberal voting record and outstanding constituent services.”) Morella lost some of the more Republican-leaning parts of the district -- in relative terms, at least, this being Montgomery County, Md. -- and gained solidly Democratic territory in Prince George’s County. Democrats in the legislature (where Van Hollen happened to be an influential and respected member) were clearly trying to draw a seat for their party.
But I’d argue that Morella was also the victim of the rightward drift of the party, and in particular of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Before 1994, Democrats in the district could safely ignore her party affiliation because their party was in firm control of the House. After 1994, with Democrats increasingly upset with the House Republican leadership and itching to take the House back, her party came to matter a great deal.
The evidence is in the steady decline of her share of the vote from 1994 onward. Here are the percentages for Morella in the elections over the decade before her defeat:
1992: 73 percent
1994: 70 percent
1996: 61 percent
1998: 60 percent
2000: 52 percent
2002: 48 percent
If the backlash against the national Republican Party among moderate and liberal voters had not occurred, Morella would not have been vulnerable, and no amount of creative line drawing could have defeated her.
Still, I am glad Mihm called readers’ attention to the issue of gerrymandering, which is, indeed, a habit of both parties -- when they can get away with it.
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