Divided America will elect two Congresses this fall

Discussing politics at an ice cream social in Newton, Kansas, July 22, 2014 (David Lightman/McClatchy)
Discussing politics at an ice cream social in Newton, Kansas, July 22, 2014 (David Lightman/McClatchy) McClatchy

America will elect two Congresses this fall, particularly in the House of Representatives.

That’s because there are two Americas doing the voting: one hunkered down in redder-than-ever Republican districts that send partisan Republican conservatives to the House of Representatives, the other in bluer-than-ever Democratic districts that send reliably liberal Democrats.

They are different from each other _ culturally, demographically. And they’re different from the way each used to be _ more partisan now, much less willing to see anything of value in the other party.

The average Republican district is whiter, older, more rural than the average Democratic district, according to an analysis of data from the census and the Almanac of American Politics. It has more veterans, more native-born Americans. It has more people who speak only English at home.

The average Democratic district is younger, more urban and considerably more diverse, with more African-Americans, Hispanics and people of other races. It has more foreign-born people, and more who speak Spanish at home.

As the red and blue districts on the election night map have changed, they’ve also grown more partisan and predictable.

Once willing to split their vote, say for a Republican candidate for president and a Democrat for the House, voters in those same districts now line up more reliably with one party.

This political homogenization _ stoked by national party agendas that alienate swing voters and reinforced by intensely partisan gerrymandering _ produces ever more partisan members of the House. Once in Washington, the winners survive by playing to their deep red or deep blue constituency. Supporters and increasingly powerful interest groups make sure the members of Congress don’t stray, watching their every sentence and demanding bold partisan strokes.

The result nationwide is a polarized Congress, and it helps explain why the current two-year session of Congress will go home in a few weeks to face re-election as the least productive in at least half a century.

The trend building outside the Beltway is evident in onetime swing areas such as the 4th districts of Kansas and Connecticut.

CONNECTICUT: The GOP brand becomes toxic

The 4th District starts at the New York border, not far from the Bronx. It expands quickly into the lush suburban towns where Manhattan’s executives come home. The district snakes its way east to Bridgeport and a familiar roster of urban ills such as unemployment and crime.

For years, suburbanites tilted the district Republican, and party officials survived by balancing strong support for civil rights with fiscal conservatism. Contented voters responded by electing a long line of Republican moderates.

They sent Clare Boothe Luce to Congress in the 1940s, family patriarch Prescott Bush to the Senate in 1952 and, starting in 1968, Watergate maverick Lowell Weicker, first to the House and then the Senate. The 4th District elected Republicans to the House in all but three elections from 1942 to 2006.

Today the district neatly fits the profile of a 2014-vintage Democratic stronghold. Gary Rose, a Sacred Heart University professor who wrote a district history, called the change “increasing heterogeneity” that will “in various ways affect the district’s congressional politics.”

Three of 10 speak languages other than English at home, the same as in Democratic areas nationwide. One in 5 is foreign-born, again nearly the Democratic norm, well above the Republican district average.

The nonwhite population is up from 15 percent in 1980 to about 25 percent today, a burgeoning Democratic constituency. The Puerto Rican community particularly has become more active. People are more engaged and feeling more empowered.

“People today are more aware of what’s going on,” said Millie Maldonado, the president of a Bridgeport group that sponsors a Puerto Rican parade and festival each July. “You can’t throw a stone, break the glass and hide anymore.”

The minority community’s growing numbers and activism have helped Democrats. So has the eroding image of the Republican Party. A district that in the 1980s gave strong majorities to Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in the last two elections.

Democrat Jim Himes beat 22-year incumbent Republican Chris Shays in 2008 and has been re-elected twice.

What happened?

Suburbia was the late 20th-century battleground of American politics, as city dwellers, usually lifelong Democrats, left their urban roots and rote political loyalties behind and became comfortable with the Republicans’ social liberal/fiscal conservative mix.

In southwestern Connecticut, people fled New York City for Fairfield County’s emerald-green yards and strong schools, still just a quick train ride away from the big city.

They found a life here that can be grand and irritating. The Stamford Town Center Mall has seven levels, a Looney Tunes play area, 17 shoe stores and 19 places to eat, including a stand with 16 varieties of frozen yogurt.

Getting there, though, takes patience. A 14-mile rush hour delay on Interstate 95 isn’t unusual. Guns and crime remain an ever-present danger; the 2012 Newtown elementary school shootings, in a town in the neighboring district, continue to haunt residents.

Rita Hulm, a teacher, sat in a booth at Chip’s Family Restaurant in Fairfield and recalled her vote for Shays: “He was a good guy.” When her husband died, Shays and his wife took care to help her daughter, and his wife sent over a plate of cookies.

When Shays sided with President George W. Bush to support the Iraq War, Hulm, who’d once voted for Reagan, grew wary.

Bill Brown, a Redding executive and board compensation consultant and Army veteran, became a Democrat about 10 years ago. Republicans’ women’s rights policies and a far right agenda already troubled him. Misleading communication about Iraq pushed him over the edge.

When he went to town hall to switch, an elected Republican official there was stunned. Brown explained that he was changing because of that far right agenda and the war. She quietly said she understood.

The new Democrats

Manya Piels grew up a Democrat in Manhattan. Once in Connecticut, she supported Shays and appreciated his candor, but over the last dozen years saw the Republican Party as growing too radical, particularly on women’s rights. 

“The anti-abortion movement has a tendency to extremism,” the Westport travel consultant said as she sat outside the 125-year-old Pequot Library in Southport.

The library is a mecca for book lovers, who in late July were flooding the dimly lit hall plowing through books for sale.

People routinely said their newfound sympathy for Democrats was based on more than one issue.

Piels recalled 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s reference to the 47 percent of Americans he said depended on government.

“Republicans seem to have no clue how people are struggling,” Piels said.

John McKinney can understand. He’s the son of a longtime moderate Republican 4th District congressman.

“I find people who will tell candidates, ‘I like you,’ but add, ‘You’re going to be part of a leadership in Washington that I don’t like,’ ” lamented McKinney, now state Senate Republican leader.

That view is poisoning the party’s image. “There’s no liberal, open-minded thinking at all,” said Heather Dean, a Fairfield day care operator who switched to Democrat 11 years ago and says today, “I’ve never looked back.”

She was also uncomfortable with Republicans’ emphasis on social issues. “I felt that had nothing to do with running the country at all,” Dean said.

Leon Karvelis, a Redding local government finance expert, recalled how he appreciated Republican willingness to use government as an agent of efficient change. “Eisenhower started the interstate highway system. I can still mail a letter across the country for under 50 cents,” he said. “Government helped pay for my education.”

He’d vote for a Republican if the right one came along. Anyone come to mind?

He thought for a long minute, finally conceding, “It’s a challenge.”

KANSAS: Out-of-touch Democrats in a distant capital

Kansas’ 4th District is a middle American quilt, a patchwork of vast, flat green spaces punctuated by small towns every few miles.

Each town has a quiet downtown, with lots of parking, no congestion and a decent restaurant that serves thick milkshakes and thick soups. Even the biggest city, Wichita, has a gentle, open feel thanks to its wide streets and comfortable suburbs.

Wichita boomed in the mid-20th century, notably as a hub for small airplane production. Workers came from the South and the Plains to work in the aviation industry, bringing their politics with them. That gave the district touches of Southern Democrat and Midwestern Republican. In 1976, the 4th District gave 48 percent of its vote to Democrat Jimmy Carter even though Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas was the GOP vice-presidential candidate.

Mindful of the need for government in the farm economy or aviation industry, the people for years voted for candidates who made the system work for them regardless of political party. For 18 years, they elected Dan Glickman, a Democrat.

The shift

The district’s politics changed sharply in recent years, though.

In the 1990s, Wichita became a center of anti-abortion protest, targeted because it was the home of George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions. (An anti-abortion zealot killed Tiller in 2009 while he ushered at his Wichita church.)

At the same time, conservatives nationwide were on the march. President Bill Clinton gave them fresh momentum in 1993 and 1994, as his administration’s agenda included a ban on assault weapons, hefty tax increases for the wealthy and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which many Kansans feared would cost jobs.

A vote for Republicans was now a vote for the emerging conservative agenda and against Clinton and Glickman. The ticket-splitting days of 1980 were long gone, the days when Reagan won 53 percent of the vote in the district while Glickman won 69 percent.

They voted Glickman out in 1994.

At Wichita’s Eberly Farm, farmers gathered recently in the vast paneled dining room, surrounded by deer heads on the walls from around the world and an old clock advertising 4 percent farm bank loans, “right for any season.”

Michael Rausch was a Democrat until eight years ago, hoping the party would welcome more center-right views. He’d voted for Glickman because “he was a good guy, and he had Kansas in his veins.”

Recent events pushed Rausch away. “I can overlook a lot,” he said, “but there seemed to be a paradigm shift.”

Conservatives tightened their grip over the years, and today Wichita is known politically as the home of the Koch brothers, the billionaire businessmen whose Republican largesse infuriates Democrats.

The 4th is typical of America’s new Republican districts. The population is overwhelmingly white. About two-thirds of the households are families, and 93.3 percent are native-born, echoing the national Republican averages.

Today 4th District voters elect Mike Pompeo, who was one of 15 congressmen last year with perfect American Conservative Union ratings. He’s part of a solid congressional Republican bloc that’s repeatedly and unsuccessfully sought the repeal of the 2010 health care law, dramatic cuts in social programs and tougher curbs on illegal immigration.

By 2012, the partisan hold was unshakable: Romney got 62 percent in the district, as did Pompeo.

At the Pratt County Fair, Tom Black sat on a bench watching his son Austin get his steer ready for the day’s competition. The 17-year-old has already won grand champion in woodworking for his gun cabinet.

Black, a conservative Democrat, called himself a “Democrat who thinks like a Republican.” Voting for a Democrat is hard, he said, especially with the new health care law’s demands.

The aftermath

Whether it’s the jammed highways of Connecticut or the bucolic Kansas prairie, the trend is the same: Voters are huddling in their corners, and they want to see and hear only their partisan advocates.

Cliff Kenworthy isn’t comfortable with this new standard. He thinks it’s important to settle for what’s possible. He sat in the shade at the Pratt County Fair’s sheep barn, oblivious to the heat and humidity that turned the fair into an outdoor furnace.

He stared at his clipboard, checking the rules for judging the lambs and ewes. Don’t forget, he advised, no lamb is perfect. You do the best with what you’ve got.

That rule, he said, should apply to politics.

Stephanie Haven contributed to this article.