Think Congress is too partisan now? Primaries could magnify division as the number of swing districts shrinks

A new round of redistricting is reducing the number of competitive House seats. That means congressional primaries matter more than ever. The problem is 80% of voters don't participate in them.

Ledyard King
USA TODAY
  • The vast majority of House districts are drawn so only one party really has a chance of victory.
  • Primaries will take on added importance this year but four in five voters historically sit them out.
  • Groups are trying to boost primary turnout by advocating for a more voter-friendly format.

WASHINGTON – The 2020 election was a pretty lopsided affair when it came to Congress. Nearly eight of every nine House seats represented a district so red or so blue that only one party had a legitimate shot to win it.

It's about to get worse.

The number of seats considered competitive is on pace to be just one in 18 – instead of one in nine – meaning the vast swath of Americans who vote only in the November midterms won't have much of a say on whom they send to Capitol Hill.

It's why the primaries, which kicked off Tuesday in Texas, are perhaps as consequential as they've been in decades. The nominees who win will emerge in most areas of the country as the heavy favorites to win their races on Election Day and take their congressional seats in January.

The. U.S. Capitol sits behind the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

"The primary is now tantamount to election in more than 90% of districts," said David Wasserman, U.S. House editor of the non-partisan non-partisan Cook Political report. "We've seen more than half of competitive seats disappear."

Through mid-February, only 19 of the 335 House districts redrawn using new Census data went for either Donald Trump or Joe Biden by five percentage points or fewer. That compares with 40 of the same 335 in the 2020 election, according to Wasserman. The boundaries for the remaining 100 seats are still being finalized or being challenged in court, but the trends don't look good.

The reasons for less competition are not surprising: more partisan-packed districts thanks to a combination of shifting populations and gerrymandering by states where the party in power wants to redraw districts to their advantage. Blue states like New York are adopting Democratic-friendly districts to balance GOP-drawn maps in red states such as Texas.

What that means, Wasserman said, is that Congress is likely to grow even more partisan and more divided.

"With a very small battlefield of (swing) races, the parties have less incentive to recruit candidates with broad appeal," he said. "So that means that party recruitment efforts are narrowed to a very small batch of meaningful races and the rest of the races come down to primaries, where the base is craving one message or the other."

More:Voters get fewer choices as Democrats and Republicans dig partisan trenches in redistricting

The shrinking number of competitive districts has directed more attention to the primaries and the party activists who play a key role in them. It's why endorsements from dominant party figures – such as former president Donald Trump in the GOP and liberal firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic party - could matter even more in this election cycle.

Especially considering how relatively few Americans traditionally participate in these intra-party contests when the presidential race is not on the ballot.

"They are the consequential votes that are ultimately picking the people who have the best chance of winning the general election," said Michael Thorning, associate director of governance at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank trying to boost primary turnout. "Our theory at BPC, and it has been for quite some time, is that this is causing more polarizing candidates to make it into Congress ultimately."

Unite America, another group concerned about the outsized influence primaries wield, points to the 2020 GOP primary for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, as an example.

Then-challenger Lauren Boebert, a political novice who drew attention for her defiance of COVID restrictions, upset incumbent Rep. Scott Tipton in a primary where 60% of voters described themselves as "very conservative." Boebert went on to win the GOP-leaning district in November even though only 25% of those voters identified as "very conservative."

Since her election, the far-right restaurateur has become one of the most vocal, pro-Trump members of Congress.

Rep. Lauren Boebert listens as President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union address.

Not everyone subscribes to the notion that primary election voters tend to be much less mainstream than general election voters.

"I think that the evidence that primary voters are, in fact, particularly extreme is kind of sketchy," said Robert Boatright, who chairs of the political science department at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

"If you think about who are the kinds of people who would vote no matter what, often they're older people, people who've lived there for a long time and therefore own a House, have roots in the neighborhood," he said. "They're not necessarily radicals, right?"

"So there are a lot of arguments that primaries benefit extremists or that more conservative people or more liberal people are more likely to vote primary," Boatright said . "And I think the evidence nationally is not there."

Fewer primary voters as Americans leave both parties

Only one in five eligible voters – 19.9% – cast a primary election ballot in 2018, the most recent midterm. That was higher than the two previous ones (14.3% in 2014 and 18.3% in 2010) but still well below general election participation.

Turnout often is driven by voter enthusiasm against the party in power, analysts say. That's why Democrats were more active in 2018 when Donald Trump was president and why Republicans are expected to show up in greater numbers with Joe Biden in the White House.

Whatever the participation in the primaries, it's still expected to be less than half that of the general election in November, based on Census numbers.

Yes, the midterms have begun:Primary voting starts today in Texas. Here are ten House races to watch in 2022

Hampering efforts to increase primary turnout is Americans' increasing penchant to reject both parties. Nearly half of adults – 46% – consider themselves independents, with 24% identifying themselves as Republicans and 28% as Democrats, according to the latest Gallup survey. That number fluctuates slightly month to month but the overall shift is unmistakable.

"The broader trend toward an increasing share of political independents has been clear over the past decade, with more Americans viewing themselves as independents than did so in the late 1980s through 2000s," according to Gallup. "Before 2011, independent identification had never reached 40%."

Complicating efforts to increase turnout is that most states do not conduct fully open primaries, which would allow participation by all voters, regardless of party.

Nine states – Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania – hold closed primaries that allow only registered members of a party to vote in that primary, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 21 have limits on who gets to participate.

Political parties, which generally decide primary rules, have historically been reluctant to permit independents or members of the other party to join in, Thorning said.

"They're worried about mischief from people who are not really loyal party members, trying to vote for either a more extreme or moderate candidate to get an outcome that will benefit the other party in the general election," he said. "And I think there is a sincerely held belief among many political party leaders that the primaries really are the province of the parties themselves and that voting in the party primary is a privilege of party members."

Groups hope to ratchet up primary turnout

The Bipartisan Policy Center is among the groups tying to change that.

They're calling for more open primaries, and have endorsed a top-two or "jungle" primary like the system used in California, where all candidates run in the same primary regardless of political party.

"Advocates of the 'top-two' format argue that it increases the likelihood of moderate candidates advancing to the general election ballot," according to the NCSL. "Opponents maintain that it reduces voter choice by making it possible that two candidates of the same party face off in the general election."

The BPC also recommends that primaries for all offices be held on the same day across the country. Currently, most states hold separate elections for federal candidates than for state and local ones. And the primary calendar stretches from March to September.

More:Liz Cheney vs. Trump: The feud forcing Wyoming to ask hard questions

"We think there's voter fatigue. There's also voter confusion or lack of awareness that we think would be very easy for states to address," Thorning said. "We found that voters know when Election Day is (but) very few voters know the primary dates in their state."

Most pundits project Republicans, who only need a net gain of five seats to retake the House, will be in control when a new Congress takes office in January, regardless of primary turnout. 

But Boatright cautioned not to draw many national themes from the primary elections.

The 28th Texas Congressional District in Texas, for example, is headed to a Democratic run-off in May. That's because nine-term incumbent Henry Cuellar, a moderate, couldn't top 50% in Tuesday's primary against progressive favorite Jessica Cisneros who has the backing of Ocasio-Cortez.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) (R), joined by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), speaks on southern border security and illegal immigration, during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 30, 2021.

Two years ago, Cisneros nearly beat Cuellar who is under an ethics cloud after the FBI raided his home in January.

And arguably the most anticipated primary – GOP incumbent and fierce Trump critic Liz Cheney versus challenger Harriet Hageman, whom the former president endorsed – won't happen until mid-August, when most other states will have held their contests.

"People tend to over-interpret what happens" in primaires, Boatright said. "People will pay a lot of attention to that and try to divine what that means for the Republican Party or the Democratic Party and often people draw the wrong conclusions. Oftentimes, it is a matter of local politics."