Districts Give Congressional Incumbents Advantage
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And I'm Renee Montagne.
Recent national polls show that by a double-digit margin, more voters want the Democrats to control Congress, not the Republicans.
That's got Democrats hoping this November's mid-term elections will end the 12-year GOP majority. Experts say, the odds are still against that happening. The big reason is that the districts from which members are elected are drawn to keep incumbents in both parties safe on Election Day.
NPR's Brian Niiler traveled to Indiana to see how it works.
BRIAN NIILER reporting:
The Sixth District takes in most of eastern Indiana, an area the size of New Hampshire, with 19 counties and countless rows of corn. And small towns like Brookville.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good afternoon. I'd like to welcome everyone to the Brookville Library.
NIILER: About a dozen Brookville residents are here on this March afternoon to see Republican Mike Pence, who's been the Sixth District's Congressman since 2001. Pence is known as a conservative's conservative. In Washington he heads the Republican study group, a collection of more than 100 House conservatives which has clashed with President Bush over spending issues.
He was one of a handful of republicans to vote against the president's signature No Child Left Behind Act, and he opposed the prescription drug benefit Mr. Bush championed. But Pence strongly backs the president's policies in Iraq, and tells the group he thinks the war is being won.
Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): Despite what it may appear like on the television screens, I believe that the Iraqi people, the Iraqi forces, and American coalition forces are achieving our military, and political and, strategic goals in a consistent manner. And, I believe, will continue to.
NIILER: Many would disagree, which has been reflected in the president's sagging poll numbers nationwide and in Indiana. It's one of the reasons Democrats believe that they can take 15 seats from Republicans this November, and take control of the House.
But Pence, like many GOP incumbents, will be very tough to unseat. Brian Howey is an Indiana political analyst. Sitting in an Indianapolis coffee shop, Howey says it will take a huge wave, indeed.
Mr. BRIAN HOWEY (political analyst, Indiana): It would take something like the December 26th, that type of Tsunami, a truly historic event, I think, to move Mike Pence out of that district. He is such a talented politician. He has such a good rapport with his constituents that I think they'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Even though they may disagree with him, on the war, for instance, but they like him and they trust him. And he's also been willing to pick a fight with the president on a few key issues.
NIILER: A Democrat held the Sixth District seat for two decades prior to 1994. The District was redrawn after the 2000 census, and Democrats, who controlled the process in Indiana that year, actually gave Pence more Republican voters to make neighboring districts in the state more competitive.
Pence won reelection two years ago with 67 percent of the vote. He has over $500,000 in the bank as of the last spending report. That's about $495,000 dollars more than Barry Welsh, his likely Democratic opponent this fall.
Nonetheless, Welsh, a United Methodist Minister, has, well, faith.
Mr. BARRY WELSH (Democrat, Indiana): In all honesty, without the current climate, our voice wouldn't be heard, and the opposition wouldn't be growing.
But since we have stood up and started saying what needs to be said, other people have gotten behind us and it just grows daily. So I'm excited.
NIILER: Welsh may not be able to match Pence's resources. Still, the incumbent is taking nothing for granted. Pence travels back home often, meeting with constitutes in regular town hall meetings, where he's asked his views on everything from eminent domain to immigration.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How about border security, your feelings on that and what we might do. Any changes?
Representative PENCE: Let me just say, with regard to illegal immigration. You know, a nation without borders is not a nation.
NIILER: Pence is a former radio talk show host, who was on the air during the big national electoral wave that swept Republicans into office in 1994. In an interview he says he doesn't think this year's tide has reached that point yet, but he sees plenty to worry about.
Representative PENCE: I think 2006 will be the toughest year for the Republican majority since the year it was minted in 1994. And, unless we go back, as we say here in southern Indiana, to dance with what brung us, unless we go back to fiscal discipline and to accountability, and to delivering on a promise of limited government that minted this majority, then I think all bets are off in the fall of 2006.
NIILER: Political experts say there may be as few as 30 congressional seats where either party could win this fall. Pence is doing all he can to make sure that his seat isn't one of them.
Brian Niiler, NPR News.
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