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Saturday, 2 November, 2002, 13:42 GMT
Limited race for the House
The BBC's Nick Bryant
BBC Washington correspondent Nick Bryant explains why so few of the seats in the House of Representatives are actually competitive races.

Four days into this campaign diary, and I have yet to write a word about the race for control of the House of Representatives. Well, here's my excuse, and it's a good one.

Of the 435 House seats up for grabs, only about 40 are genuinely competitive. Of those, even a smaller number are real toss-ups - probably about 16.

Take the two biggest electoral states, California and Texas.

Open in new window : US poll results
Click here for a state-by-state guide to seats

In California, which has 53 representatives, the most of any state, only one contest is even moderately competitive. It is the race in the 18th District to succeed Congressman Gary Condit, who was dumped by Democratic primary voters after becoming enmeshed in the mystery surrounding the disappearance and death of the Washington intern Chandra Levy.

In the Lone Star State of Texas, where 32 seats are up for grabs, again, only one race is truly competitive.

Blame boundaries

One of the reasons why turn-out in congressional elections is so low - just 36.4% in the Congressional mid-terms of 1998 - is that nine out of 10 Americans live in districts where their votes won't matter a jot.

Congressional redistricting - that 10-yearly exercise in gerrymandering in which governors and state legislatures redraw the political boundaries - is largely to blame.

Gary Condit
Gary Condit lost out due to his connection with the Chandra Levy scandal
Add in the advantages of incumbency - name recognition, money and influence on Capitol Hill - and it is easy to see why such a small number of seats are up for grabs.

It is unusual for the re-election rate among incumbents to dip below 90%. In 2000, only six House members lost their seats.

Breakthrough

The Democrats, of course, need a net gain of just six seats to win back control of the House.

The problem is that with so few truly competitive seats, it will be hard to make the breakthrough.

The Cook Political Report, the bible for "Inside the Beltway" number crunchers, predicts that 217 seats are "leaning, likely or solidly in the Republican column".

The Republican Party needs 218 to win an overall majority. So it is not looking good for the Democrats.

Traditionally, they have dominated the House. But since Newt Gingrich's famed "Republican Revolution" in 1994, the Speaker's gavel has been in the grip of a GOP hand.

Surreal

If history is our guide, then we should expect the presidential party to lose seats in the mid-term elections - it has done so in 32 of the past 34 off-year elections.

But this year, the GOP is confident - supremely so, it seems - that it will see off the Democratic challenge.


In Hawaii, voters are being asked to vote for a dead woman

That is not to say that the plot lines of some of the House races aren't intriguing, funny, and, in some instances, utterly surreal.

There is every likelihood, for instance, that the election will produce the first sister act in Congress, with Californian Linda Sanchez likely to join her elder sister, Loretta, on Capitol Hill (brother acts are fairly common - right now we have Michigan Democrats, Senator Carl Levin and Congressman Sander Levin).

In Florida, Republican Katherine Harris - the femme fatale of the 2000 election debacle, the queen of the pregnant chad - is a shoo-in to represent the state's 13th District. No need for a recount there.

Traficant's return

In Hawaii, voters are being asked to vote for a dead woman, the late Democratic Congresswoman, Patsy Mink, who died on 28 September, two days after the deadline to remove her name from the ballot. If she wins, there will be a special election to fill her seat on 4 January.

In Youngstown, Ohio, our old friend Jim Traficant - he of the denim suits, wild flares and outlandish grey toupee - is running for office from behind bars.

Traficant, who was expelled from Congress in July, after being sentenced to an eight-year prison term for bribery and racketeering, is even running television advertisements. "Say what you want about him", says one of the spots, "but Traficant gets the job done".

The ad shows pictures the projects which Traficant supported - yep, you've guessed it, a federal courthouse and a federal prison.


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14 Oct 02 | Americas
06 Mar 02 | Americas
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