Culture Wars/Current Controversies

All Politics Is No Longer Local

Just as class divisions are the widest they have been in a century in the USA, so are ideological divisions and partisan divisions.


The following is an excerpt from The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis, written by former Republican Rep. Tom Davis, former Democratic Rep. Martin Frost and Richard E. Cohen. The first section of this article was written by Davis. The second section, marked as such, is Frost’s response.


Tip O’Neill, the legendary Democratic House Speaker of the 70s and 80s, devotes a chapter of his book Man of the House to the title, “All Politics is Local.” He recalls his race for the Cambridge City Council early in his career, the only race he ever lost, after which his father noted that he had received a tremendous vote in other areas of the city but hadn’t worked hard enough in his own backyard. His dad’s advice? “All politics is local.”

 O’Neill goes on to note that the lesson also applies to Congress: “You can be the most important congressman in the country, but you had better not forget the people back home.”

But, as the saying goes, “that was then and this is now.” In the evolution of American politics over the past 30 years, the “local” aspect of winning elections, though still relevant, has taken a back seat to party affiliation and ideological orientation. Members with strong local ties to their constituencies have been displaced by voters who feel that party identity and how it relates to the national leadership and national issues are more important than simply liking their local representatives.

It would be hard to find members of Congress more in tune with their constituencies than Democrat Gene Taylor from Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Elected in a special election in 1989 after the GOP incumbent died in a plane crash, Taylor held the seat for 20 years by large electoral margins.

In 2008, while Obama received 32 percent of the vote (his lowest percentage in any state) at the top of the ticket in the 4th congressional district, Gene Taylor received 74.5 percent of the vote for his reelection. At the time, Taylor had received less than 60 percent of the vote only once, in 1996, but had recovered and had been polling over 70 percent consistently since.

Hurricane Katrina struck a devastating blow to his district and to Taylor himself. His own house, more than 100 years old, was washed away, along with his neighborhood. He personally rebuilt his home and led the fight against the insurance industry, which claimed that flooding, not wind, was responsible for the damage to thousands of homes along the coast. That experience deepened his personal connection with his constituents.

His popularity and connection to his constituency, however, just weren’t enough in 2010, in an off-year election when reaction to Obama’s health care bill was at its zenith. Taylor was washed out of his seat by a Republican tide (the final vote count was 105,613 to 95,243) even though he’d voted against Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank banking bill and other Democratic initiatives. He had long been the most conservative Democrat in the House, had voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, was endorsed by the NRA and had a solid pro-life voting record.

But after 20 years, Taylor had gotten careless. In 2007, he was a rare Democrat who voted against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker, sensing—correctly—that his constituents along the Mississippi coast would not find her San Francisco-brand leadership palatable. But in 2009, in order to preserve his subcommittee chairmanship on the Armed Services Committee, he had voted for her. In the volatile 2010 election, that was all Taylor’s opponent, a state legislator named Steve Palazzo, needed.

In 2014, Taylor attempted a comeback, running as a Republican against Palazzo for the Republican nomination. He understood that party identity and national politics now trumped local politics in congressional races. He showed that he retained an impressive connection to the district, even when running for a new party—but he was too late. Palazzo won a bare majority of the votes and avoided a runoff, while Taylor got 43 percent and other candidates split the remainder.

What happened to Gene Taylor? How could an incumbent with prior electoral vote totals in the 70 percent-plus range suddenly plummet in an off-year election?

There was the Pelosi issue. His vote in her favor in 2009 made him a part of the Democratic “problem” in the eyes of GOP voters in his district. But there was also the fact that national Republicans, through their campaign arm (the NRCC), decided to put some money into the race with ads to define Taylor as a national Democrat who backed Pelosi’s “liberal socialist agenda.” And finally, the mood of the general public, and particularly of the Republican base, was one of anger toward Obama. They wanted to send the president a strong message and this was their only opportunity to do so. How Taylor voted mattered less in the eyes of his constituents than his party affiliation.

As so often happens in electoral sweeps, the nationalization of the election also caused some Republican casualties in dark blue areas where Republicans had heretofore survived, but all in all, it was the Democrats who suffered: Gene Taylor’s career as a Democratic congressman was over, as were those of many other Democrats across the country who had previously demonstrated personal gravitas in Republican districts. The net 63-seat gain for Republicans in 2010 was their largest gain in more than six decades.

The country had seen these kinds of landslides before in off-year elections: in 1958, 1974 and 1994. But 2010 was different in several ways. For one, Democrats didn’t rebound two years later in many of these areas; the realignments became national and permanent. Secondly, in 2012, many of the 2010 GOP gains were strengthened in the redrawing of the congressional district boundaries during the decennial redistricting. This was buoyed by the 2010 state legislative elections, which resulted in Republican majorities who were then responsible for redrawing the district boundaries. This in turn reduced Democratic opportunities to win back most of the seats that were lost in 2010. Because congressional vote patterns were now congruent with presidential voting patterns, local candidates were less able to maintain their own identities. Incumbency was helpful, but presidential vote preferences, with few exceptions, were dispositive.

Of course, 2010 didn’t occur in a vacuum. Already, many districts were discarding locally popular members of the minority party and voting nationally. I had one voter stop me on Election Day in 2006 to tell me how I’d helped his family on a disability issue and how proud he was of my service, but he said he couldn’t vote for me. He had to send a message to President George Bush, and I was the best conduit for doing that. I replied that he could vote for me and I would personally deliver his letter to the White House. However, he would not be assuaged. Politics for him was no longer a local affair, it was national. And though I survived the 2006 election, running well ahead of my running mate, Sen. George Allen, it was clear to me that politics was changing—not just in 2006, but forever.

Today, ticket-splitting is the exception, not the rule. Voters are voting straight-party tickets at the highest level in 100 years. This is a result of several forces that have combined over the past decade: (1) the ideological sorting of the parties; (2) residential sorting, where people tend to live in enclaves of like-minded people; (3) political gerrymandering of districts; (4) better targeting of vulnerable districts by both national parties and interest groups; and (5) increased mobility of voters and workers, resulting in less community identification.

Let’s start with the first. Until the mid-1970s, there was little ideological consistency between the parties. Liberal Republicans abounded in the Northeast. Conservative Democrats emerged with regularity from the South. Party loyalties going back to the Civil War had liberals competing against conservatives in one-party states, within the dominant party’s primary.

Tom Davis served as U.S. representative from Virginia, 1995 to 2008. Martin Frost served as U.S. representative from Texas, 1979-2005. The two are co-authors with Richard E. Cohen of The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis (Premiere).

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