To understand why Congress barely functions, take a look at Virginia, where voters just nominated two men who are almost certain to go to Washington and never agree on anything.
David Brat beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary by supporting the repeal of Obamacare and the rights of gun owners. In a district just 50 miles away, Don Beyer won the Democratic primary by vowing to strengthen the health care law and ban high-capacity gun magazines.
They owe their nominations — and almost certain general election wins in November — to the way state leaders drew the boundaries of their congressional districts, clumping together like-minded voters to benefit the majority party. The practice, called gerrymandering, tends to favor candidates on their parties’ extremes.
“It contributes to polarization because Republicans are more conservative and Democrats are more liberal and thus they are further apart,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a website of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in Charlottesville.
The results are evident. Congress had its least productive year ever in 2013, passing just 72 new laws. So far this year, 48 measures have been passed and signed by the president. Work has come to a virtual halt on rewriting immigration law, overhauling the tax code, slashing budget deficits and expediting a pair of trade deals.
The once-a-decade process of drawing the types of districts that will join Beyer and Brat in the halls of Congress has always involved advantage-seeking by the party in control of the legislature in most states. What’s changed is technology, because increasingly sophisticated computer software enables creative district drawing using block-by-block voter registration data.
“It’s often the case that it’s legislators picking their constituents and not the other way around,” Skelley said. “It’s relatively easy with modern technology to know exactly where to splice the lines.”
In Virginia, the new boundaries for the state’s House districts that were signed into law by then-Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2012 were considered a form of incumbent protection for Republicans who controlled both chambers of the statehouse.
They proved to be just that, returning all eight Republicans and three Democrats to the House that year. Cantor won re-election easily, reaping 79 percent of the vote in his spring primary before taking 58 percent in the general election.
Yet the new district boundaries contributed to his downfall June 10, the first time a House majority leader lost his party’s primary since the leadership post was created in 1899. His central Virginia 7th Congressional District, which includes Richmond and its suburbs in Henrico County and stretches north to the Rappahannock River, was tweaked in the approved map to make it more conservative. That made him more vulnerable to Brat’s Tea Party challenge.
The district now includes rural New Kent County to the east of Richmond, one of the areas where Cantor lost to Brat along with the Richmond suburbs he had long represented, said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.
“His district became more conservative and I think that actually hurt him,” Kidd said. “He lost New Kent County heavily,” the portion of his district where voters were least familiar with him.
Now that Brat has pushed Cantor aside as the district’s Republican nominee, the economics professor at Ashland, Virginia’s Randolph-Macon College clearly has the upper hand as he faces off against Democrat Jack Trammell, who teaches at the same school. The district gave 57 percent of its vote to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
In the nearby 8th Congressional District that hugs the Washington, D.C., border and stretches south to the Occoquan River, Beyer is also comfortably positioned for a fall race against Republican Micah Edmond. His district gave 68 percent of its vote to Obama in 2012, the same year it returned 12-term Democratic Representative Jim Moran to the House with a comfortable 65 percent vote. Moran is retiring at the end of this term.
Hastings Wyman, founder of the nonpartisan Southern Political Report, says the district by design packs in voters who are among the most liberal and racially diverse in the state, including many people relocated to the area to work in the nation’s capital. By putting as many of these Democratic- leaning voters in one district, Republicans contained their influence.
“It’s not the typical Virginia district, and it was drawn that way on purpose,” Wyman said.
The approach, repeated in many states after every federal census, crammed like-minded voters into districts and yielded lawmakers who represent constituencies that don’t demand moderation or compromise. Such districts reinforce the need for candidates to play to the party faithful and increasingly cements positions of both newcomers and tenured incumbents.
“We’re seeing more cases where the primary race determines the election outcome,” said former Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat who lost his seat four years ago. “It’s because the redistricting that took place in 2010 was accomplished with such perfection in terms of achieving the outcome desired by the party that dominated the redistricting process.”
Beyer, a former lieutenant governor, has an agenda that suggests he’ll rarely part ways with Democratic congressional leaders or President Barack Obama.
A Volvo dealership owner who until recently was the Obama administration’s ambassador to Switzerland, he’s pro-choice, supports an Obama plan to use overseas tax revenue from multinational companies to fund highways and bridges. He has good things to say about the much-maligned Affordable Care Act.
“While the law isn’t perfect, it is a historical achievement that will help cover all Americans and reform our health care coverage system,” he said on his campaign website. “Instead of trying to repeal the law, like the Tea Party Republicans are doing, we need to make it better.”
Beyer wants background checks on those purchasing guns at gun shows and he favors banning high-capacity magazines, which he calls “sensible reform.” Both positions have been fought by the National Rifle Association, the biggest U.S. gun lobby.
“I’ll stand up to the NRA in Congress,” he says on his campaign website.
Brat pledges to oppose any efforts to “undermine or limit” the Constitution’s Second Amendment gun rights.
The political newcomer ran to the right of Cantor, the No. 2 Republican leader best known for urging debt-limit brinkmanship after Republicans took the House four years ago. Brat in his campaign charged that Cantor was too ready to compromise with Democrats on debt-ceiling boosts in October and February and supports changes in immigration law benefiting kids of illegal immigrants.