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By David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau

PRATT, Kansas — America will elect two Congresses this fall, particularly in the House of Representatives.

That’s because there are two Americas doing the voting: one hunkered down in redder-than-ever Republican districts that send partisan Republican conservatives to the House of Representatives, the other in bluer-than-ever Democratic districts that send reliably liberal Democrats.

They are different from each other — culturally, demographically. And they’re different from the way each used to be — more partisan now, much less willing to see anything of value in the other party.

The average Republican district is whiter, older, more rural than the average Democratic district, according to an analysis of data from the census and the Almanac of American Politics. It has more veterans, more native-born Americans. It has more people who speak only English at home.

The average Democratic district is younger, more urban, and considerably more diverse, with more African-Americans, Hispanics, and people of other races. It has more foreign-born people, and more who speak Spanish at home.

As the red and blue districts on the election night map have changed, they’ve also grown more partisan and predictable.

Once willing to split their vote, say for a Republican candidate for president and a Democrat for the House, voters in those same districts now line up more reliably with one party.

This political homogenization — stoked by national party agendas that alienate swing voters and reinforced by intensely partisan gerrymandering — produces ever more partisan members of the House. Once in Washington, the winners survive by playing to their deep red or deep blue constituency. Supporters and increasingly powerful interest groups make sure the members of Congress don’t stray, watching their every sentence and demanding bold partisan strokes.

The result nationwide is a polarized Congress, and it helps explain why the current two-year session of Congress will go home in a few weeks to face re-election as the least productive in at least half a century.

The trend building outside the Beltway is evident in onetime swing areas such as the 4th districts of Kansas and Connecticut.

CONNECTICUT: The GOP brand becomes toxic

The 4th District starts at the New York border, not far from the Bronx. It expands quickly into the lush suburban towns where Manhattan’s executives come home. The district snakes its way east to Bridgeport and a familiar roster of urban ills such as unemployment and crime.

For years, suburbanites tilted the district Republican, and party officials survived by balancing strong support for civil rights with fiscal conservatism. Contented voters responded by electing a long line of Republican moderates.

Today the district neatly fits the profile of a 2014-vintage Democratic stronghold. Gary Rose, a Sacred Heart University professor who wrote a district history, called the change “increasing heterogeneity” that will “in various ways affect the district’s congressional politics.”

Three of 10 speak languages other than English at home, the same as in Democratic areas nationwide. One in 5 is foreign-born, again nearly the Democratic norm, well above the Republican district average.

The minority community’s growing numbers and activism have helped Democrats. So has the eroding image of the Republican Party. A district that in the 1980s gave strong majorities to Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in the last two elections.

Democrat Jim Himes beat 22-year incumbent Republican Chris Shays in 2008 and has been re-elected twice.

What happened?

Suburbia was the late 20th-century battleground of American politics, as city dwellers, usually lifelong Democrats, left their urban roots and rote political loyalties behind and became comfortable with the Republicans’ social liberal/fiscal conservative mix.

The new Democrats

Manya Piels grew up a Democrat in Manhattan. Once in Connecticut, she supported Shays and appreciated his candor, but over the last dozen years saw the Republican Party as growing too radical, particularly on women’s rights.

“The anti-abortion movement has a tendency to extremism,” the Westport travel consultant said as she sat outside the 125-year-old Pequot Library in Southport.

Piels recalled 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s reference to the 47 percent of Americans he said depended on government.

“Republicans seem to have no clue how people are struggling,” Piels said.

That view is poisoning the party’s image. “There’s no liberal, open-minded thinking at all,” said Heather Dean, a Fairfield day care operator who switched to Democrat 11 years ago and says today, “I’ve never looked back.”

KANSAS: Out-of-touch Democrats in a distant capital

Kansas’ 4th District is a middle American quilt, a patchwork of vast, flat green spaces punctuated by small towns every few miles.
Each town has a quiet downtown, with lots of parking, no congestion, and a decent restaurant that serves thick milkshakes and thick soups. Even the biggest city, Wichita, has a gentle, open feel thanks to its wide streets and comfortable suburbs.

Wichita boomed in the mid-20th century, notably as a hub for small airplane production. Workers came from the South and the Plains to work in the aviation industry, bringing their politics with them. That gave the district touches of Southern Democrat and Midwestern Republican. In 1976, the 4th District gave 48 percent of its vote to Democrat Jimmy Carter even though Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas was the GOP vice presidential candidate.

Mindful of the need for government in the farm economy or aviation industry, the people for years voted for candidates who made the system work for them regardless of political party. For 18 years, they elected Dan Glickman, a Democrat.

The shift

The district’s politics changed sharply in recent years, though.

In the 1990s, Wichita became a center of anti-abortion protest, targeted because it was the home of George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions. (An anti-abortion zealot killed Tiller in 2009 while he ushered at his Wichita church.)

At the same time, conservatives nationwide were on the march. President Bill Clinton gave them fresh momentum in 1993 and 1994, as his administration’s agenda included a ban on assault weapons, hefty tax increases for the wealthy, and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which many Kansans feared would cost jobs.

A vote for Republicans was now a vote for the emerging conservative agenda and against Clinton and Glickman. The ticket-splitting days of 1980 were long gone, the days when Reagan won 53 percent of the vote in the district while Glickman won 69 percent.

They voted Glickman out in 1994.

At Wichita’s Eberly Farm, farmers gathered recently in the vast paneled dining room, surrounded by deer heads on the walls from around the world and an old clock advertising 4 percent farm bank loans, “right for any season.”

Michael Rausch was a Democrat until eight years ago, hoping the party would welcome more center-right views. He’d voted for Glickman because “he was a good guy, and he had Kansas in his veins.”

Recent events pushed Rausch away. “I can overlook a lot,” he said, “but there seemed to be a paradigm shift.”

Today 4th District voters elect Mike Pompeo, who was one of 15 congressmen last year with perfect American Conservative Union ratings. He’s part of a solid congressional Republican bloc that’s repeatedly and unsuccessfully sought the repeal of the 2010 health care law, dramatic cuts in social programs, and tougher curbs on illegal immigration.

Stephanie Haven contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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