Democrats are elated about their electoral prospects for the 2006 midterm elections. President Bush's approval ratings are in the dumps. Controversy is swirling around the White House and Republican leaders in Congress. Federal spending is out of control. Tax reform, Social Security reform and immigration reform are languishing. And, oh yes, there's this small matter of an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq.
Blue-state strategists have visions of sugarplum fairies dancing in their heads. Christmas will come early next year on Nov. 7, when they imagine they can regain control of the House and Senate.
Democrats can be forgiven for harboring such partisan fantasies. It's not likely to happen, however. Not because there's not clear evidence of a change in public sentiment. And not because Democrats can't field decent candidates for competitive races.
The reason control of Congress is unlikely to shift to the Democrats next year is because a bipartisan, national effort has made competitive congressional races an anachronism. Incumbents have such overwhelming advantages in the ability to raise money or get face time in the media, for instance that most challengers face implausible odds of winning an election.
Even in the Senate, where redistricting isn't a factor, 25 of 26 incumbents won re-election in 2004. Democrats will need to pull off a net gain of six seats next year to obtain a majority.
Among the 33 Senate seats to be decided in 2006, Republicans currently hold 15. According to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly, incumbents will likely defend 14 of those 15 seats, while incumbents are expected to defend only 15 of the 18 seats currently held by Democrats.
Democrats, therefore, will need to run the tables, holding the three seats vacated by their incumbents along with 15 others, winning the single seat vacated by a Republican in a red Southern state no less and knocking off another five Republican incumbents. Not a likely scenario.
It's in the House, however, that computers have turned gerrymandering into a science and rendered the vast majority of general elections meaningless. State legislators used to crudely pack and stack voters into districts based on commonalities of race, ethnicity and income to achieve the desired results. Now, using reams of voting data, they carefully carve out safe seats for their incumbent friends with laser precision.
The systemic protection of incumbents was abundantly evident in last year's general election. Outside of Texas, where time and a GOP-drawn redistricting map finally caught up with four Democrats, only three of 399 congressional incumbents who ran for re-election lost their seats.
Next year, Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats in the House to wrest control from Republicans. Congressional Quarterly rates only 55 of the House's 435 seats as being even remotely competitive.
Among those 55 races, 24 are ranked as highly competitive, with a reasonable chance for partisan change. And among those 24 districts, Republicans hold 15.
In order for Democrats to produce a net gain of 15 seats, Democratic challengers will need to sweep all 15 of those districts while Democratic incumbents in the remaining nine competitive districts will need to stave off their Republican opponents.
The mathematical probability of Democrats running the House tables in this manner is next to nil.
Democrats wistfully view last month's gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia as harbingers of the 2006 general election. A better indicator comes from election results in California and Ohio, where voters rejected ballot measures that would have taken redistricting out of the hands of partisan legislators and given it to nonpartisan commissions.
In theory, voters like to talk about voting the bums out. In practice, they mean everyone else should vote their bums out, but not themselves.
Republicans might be inclined to ignore incumbent invulnerability since today it accrues to their partisan advantage.
But the consequence of uncompetitive elections is a lack of accountability among the ruling class of both parties that debases the entire political system.