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“Safe Seats” and the Media Spin About Radical Republicans

Media message: If politicians don’t have to worry about re-election, naturally they’re going to act more extreme. But that argument is flawed, says Eric Boehlert.

According to press accounts, one of the universal truths about the current government shutdown is that more Republican members of the House have adopted increasingly brazen political strategies because they’re elected from safe districts.

Due to the growing polarization of American politics and its voting patterns (along with gerrymandering), Tea Party-aligned Republicans from deeply red districts have embraced unorthodox behavior and unprecedented strategies because local voters staunchly support them even if their agenda is unpopular nationwide. It’s that electoral freedom that’s produced a new breed of Republican congressmen and women, according to this press telling.

That storyline is deeply flawed, however. It leaves out crucial context, like the simple fact that for decades a huge number of congressional Democrats have enjoyed safe seats. Yet they never equated comfortable victory margins with permission to adopt the extremist measures now displayed by Republicans as they provoke crisis after crisis. The safe seat spin also gives Republicans a pass as they continue to steer the country towards dangerous territory.

Still, that narrative remains a constant.

Explaining the disconnect between the public dismay over the shutdown and stubbornness displayed by GOP politicians, political scientist Larry Sabato told CBS News, “The vast majority are in heavily Republican districts, so general public opinion may be completely against them, but this is actually good for them.”

The New York Times explained Republicans face “little personal political risk” for backing the extreme measure of shutting down the government, “because they are elected in overwhelmingly Republican districts.” And the New York Post announced that “Until a sufficient number of Republicans start fearing that the blowback threatens their own political skins, the shutdown won’t get solved.”

Over and over, this account has been embraced by reporters and commentators as they try to explain the increasingly radical, hostage-taking behavior of Republicans who have already forced a government shutdown and who are now threatening to allow the United States to default on its debts; a move that could cause catastrophic damage to the global economy.

Media message: If politicians don’t have to worry about re-election, naturally they’re going to act more extreme.

Journalists seem to like the ‘safe seat’ explanation because on the surface it appears to make sense. (Oh, that’s why Republicans are acting so outlandishly.) And journalists also seem to be searching for a quasi-rational explanation or justification for why Republican anarchists in the House are behaving the way they are. But that’s the wrong way to approach the story.

Hint: There is no way to sugarcoat what’s going on in the Republican House. Nor is there any reason for journalists to try. Republicans have proudly adopted a radical path, so why are too many journalists reluctant to point that out? Why the desire to avoid spelling out the truth about one of the country’s two political parties and the fact that Republicans shut down the government because they didn’t support a law that was passed three years ago.

Meanwhile, the safe seat spin crumbles when you look at the numbers and their recent history in American politics.

From the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza:

The math is stark. Of the 199 Democrats in the House at the start of the 113th Congress, a majority — 51 percent(!) — won their race with 67 percent of the vote or higher. Among the 234 Republicans elected in the last election, 67 — or roughly 29 percent of the GOP conference — won with 67 percent or higher.

According to the Post, 101 Democrats occupy safe seats, compared to 67 Republicans. Yet the contrast of their behavior couldn’t be more stark: Democrats have more safe seats in the House, yet it’s Republicans who have embraced the agenda of “governmental sabotage,” as New York’s Jonathan Chait called it.

Fact: Lots and lots of Democrats have been winning very safe seats for a very long time. (It’s not a new phenomenon.) But that doesn’t mean Democrats used those easy wins as justification to push a wildly extremist agenda or to force the government to lurch from one crisis to the next.

For instance, most of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus come from very safe districts; equally safe as the ones that elected the Tea Party-friendly members of Congress who engineered the current shutdown. But have members of the Black Caucus banded together in recent years in an effort to bring the federal government to a halt because they disapproved of a previously passed law? Did they spend years, for instance, plotting to shutdown the federal government in order to protest the Iraq War, which they opposed? Did they conspire to provoke a series of crises designed to cripple the government and a Republican president?


And yes, Democrats benefited from a huge number of safe seat wins while George W. Bush was president. Between 2002 and 2008, while a Republican was in the White House, Democrats held 42 of the 50 safest seats in the nation, according to an analysis done by Smart Politics.

Additionally, the site reported in 2010 that, “analysis of 1,740 U.S. House general elections since 2002 finds nearly 90 percent of the 100 most lopsided congressional districts – those with an average victory margin of more than 50 points – are held by Democrats.”

Until very recently, Democrats dominated the number of safe seats in Congress, but you didn’t see them plotting to wreck the government. What Republicans are doing today is extreme and destructive.

Having a safe seat doesn’t excuse that or explain it away.

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