Mark Sanford. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)
Mark Sanford’s comeback bid was never so audacious as America’s political gossip columnists would have us believe.
Yes, the conservative Republican once boomed as a presidential prospect, before drawing national headlines in 2009 when it turned out that he had not gone missing on the Appalachian Trail but had instead snuck off to visit a woman friend in Buenos Aires. Yes, revelations about the affair led to his resignation as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, to his being censured by the South Carolina General Assembly after a State Ethics Commission investigation into allegations that he had misused state travel funds and to his divorce from a popular South Carolina politico.
But Sanford had a prominent name, an easy-going style and a carefully crafted message about forgiveness and redemption. He was, as well, an on-message conservative. That got him through a competitive Republican primary and a not-so-tough Republican runoff for his old US House seat, which had come open when Congressman Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, was appointed to the US Senate.
Once he had the Republican nomination, the numbers were on his side.
Even though he stumbled several times in his special-election race against an able and well-financed Democrat, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, Sanford won Tuesday with a solid 54-45 majority. Colbert Busch was competitive. In a district that gave Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney an eighteen-point advantage over President Obama last fall, she came within nine points this spring.
That’s not bad for a Democrat running in a congressional district that, in various incarnations, has been sending Republicans to Washington since 1980.
But Sanford still enjoyed the advantage that most winners of congressional races in the United States have. He was nominee of the party that the district was drawn, with painstaking attention to collecting all the Republican and Republican leaning support that could be found on the South Carolina coast, to support.
Partisan redistricting—not just classic gerrymandering but a variety of structural factors—assures that the vast majority of congressional districts in the vast majority of states produce predictable results. Even if the candidate of the dominant party is flawed, even if a challenger has financial advantages, FairVote executive director Rob Richie reminds us that “partisanship is the dominant factor in determining election outcomes.”
Another reform group, Common Cause explains, “For decades partisan wrangling has led to gerrymandered redistricting maps, collusion among the major political parties to create safe Congressional and state legislative districts, and the packing and splitting of concentrations of voters to weaken or strengthen their influence to gain partisan advantage.”
Common Cause notes, correctly, that the circumstance is growing worse, explaining that “advances in information and mapping technology has enabled a level of precision in district drawing that in effect, enables legislators to choose the voters they wish to represent and makes it difficult for voters to hold their elected officials accountable.”
There’s always been gerrymandering, but we are not at a place where the general process of drawing and redrawing district lines has become definitional: If a district is drawn to elect Republicans, it almost always elects Republicans. If a district is drawn to elect Democrats, it almost always elects Democrats.
Money is influential, personality is a factor.
But nothing comes close to redistricting when it comes to defining the results of elections.
“In 2010, Democratic incumbents went 139 and 0 in the most Democratic districts but were swamped in Republican districts,” notes Richie. In 2012, “Democrats won 176 of the 177 most Democratic districts, but Republicans didn’t need to win a single Democratic-leaning seat to keep their majority.”
This is the structural reality that shapes our politics.
And it shapes the governing that extends from that politics. Almost everything about what’s happening now in Washington can be linked to the design of our congressional districts, and to the elections that shape the House of Representatives.
“On Nov. 6, Democrats won the most votes in contested House races,” explains Richie. “FairVote’s post-election analysis of partisan voting trends suggests an underlying national preference toward Democrats of 52 percent to 48 percent. (If there had been no incumbents and each party had run a candidate in every district, the Democrats would have won 52 percent of the votes.) With a comparable edge in 2010, Republicans gained sixty-four seats to take the House. But this year, winning a House majority would have required a much bigger swing toward Democrats, as much as 55 percent of the vote, a historical high.”
This brings us back to Tuesday’s special election in South Carolina’s 1st district. Colbert Busch’s capable campaigning—or, perhaps, Sanford’s imperfect campaigning—resulted in a significant swing by voters to the Democratic column. But the district was designed to withstand a significant swing.
In 2012, the Democratic nominee took just 29 percent of the vote. Colbert Busch took 46 percent. So, in what was probably a best-of-all-worlds scenario for the Democrats, their candidate raised the party’s percentage of the vote by almost sixteen points. But she needed a swing of more than twenty-one points.
What happened in South Carolina will keep happening there and in the vast majority of American congressional districts for so long as those districts are drawn to advantage one party or the others.
Groups such as Common Cause argue for a host of redistricting reforms that make sense in a democracy including the creation of independent commissions to conduct redistricting and the establishment of strict criteria for how districts must be drawn.
FairVote’s Richie argues for going even further.
“The best way to remove the structural unfairness inherent in the current House of Representatives is to get rid of winner-take-all elections,” Richie argues in a recent report (written with Devin McCarthy). “FairVote has a plan to do just that, grounded in our Constitution and American electoral traditions. The first requirement is an act of Congress. The more ambitious plan would be for Congress to prohibit winner-take-all elections in all states that elect more than one House Member. A more modest step would be to repeal the congressional mandate for states to use single-member districts that was established in a 1967 law.”
FairVote’s proposes building a new model for electing members of Congress. They’d like to see American states follow the model of countries around the world and move to a system of proportional representation, in which “existing congressional districts would be combined into multi-seat ‘super districts’ of between three and five members, in which members would be elected using fair-voting systems—American forms of proportional representation based on voting for candidates.”
That’s a smart proposal that would result in a far-more representative Congress.
As such, it will be hard to enact—as, frustratingly, are even the most simple redistricting reforms.
But Americans who favor representative democracy don’t have a choice. Along with all the reforms that are needed—overturning Citizens United, eliminating the Electoral College, establishing a constitutionally defined right to vote—working to make congressional elections genuinely competitive is necessary to curing what ails the political process.
And it sure beats trying to come up with deep and meaningful explanations for why Mark Sanford is headed back to Congress. This one isn’t complicated. It’s structural.
John Nichols is the author (with Robert w. McChesney) of the upcoming book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. Hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fervent call to action for reformers,” it details how the collapse of journalism and the rise of big-money politics threatens to turn our democracy into a dollarocracy.