Technology Sharpens the Incumbents' Edge

In battling a reelection challenge, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), can use little-known
In battling a reelection challenge, Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), can use little-known "micro-targeting" strategies in the e-mail he sends to constituents. (By Gary Landers -- Cincinnati Enquirer)
By Jim VandeHei and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

In Ohio's 1st Congressional District, Republican incumbent Steve Chabot is running up against his toughest reelection challenge in years. But his Democratic opponent is running up against Chabot's computer.

In one of the lesser-known perks of power on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are using taxpayer-funded databases to cultivate constituents more attentively than ever. Chabot -- a six-term legislator from Cincinnati who finds himself imperiled this year after years of easy races -- has a list of e-mail addresses of people who are most interested in tax cuts. His office recently hit the send button on a personal message to alert them to the congressman's support for extending tax breaks on dividends and capital gains.

Chabot's computer is one factor to keep in mind when assessing the odds that Republicans will get evicted this November from their 12-year majority in the House. Anti-incumbent sentiment, as measured by polls and voter interviews, is stronger than it has been in years. But so, too, are certain structural advantages that overwhelmingly favor incumbents.

Some are well known, such as the superior ability of incumbents to raise campaign funds and the fact that most lawmakers come from districts that have been carefully drawn to favor one party. Other benefits -- including the ways that lawmakers are using the latest "micro-targeting" techniques in their official communications -- are more obscure, virtually unheralded beyond the people who use them.

"A major reason fewer incumbents lose is we have perfected the use of information technology," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "As incumbents, we have unlimited access to the most up-to-date technology in the world" free of charge, he said.

One way to think of this midterm election year, analysts say, is a collision between a wave and a wall.

The wave overwhelmingly favors Democrats: an unpopular war in Iraq, job approval ratings for President Bush at record lows, corruption scandals that have engulfed GOP congressional leaders, and polls showing voters favoring Democrats and their positions on the issues by distinct margins.

But Republicans still benefit from the wall: a long-term trend that for years has led to steadily fewer competitive districts.

Democrats are growing increasingly confident that this year the wave will be higher than the wall, but they acknowledge that the challenge of picking up the 15 seats they need to take control is daunting. Analysts have been watching yesterday's special election in California to replace resigned and convicted representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) for an early indicator of the year's trend. The San Diego area district is traditionally Republican, but recent polls have shown Democrats well positioned for an upset. No result was expected until early today Washington time.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), head of the House Democrats' reelection efforts, said that the party faces a "rigged system" and that only a pitched level of public discontent gives them a "fighting chance" to overcome it.

In a memo delivered to House Democrats last week, Emanuel told lawmakers that redistricting could impede their takeover hopes, noting that respected political handicapper Charlie Cook estimates there are 35 truly competitive races -- compared with 100 in 1994.

One way to look at how incumbents have grown entrenched is to compare this election year with 1994 -- the year Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and his "Republican Revolutionaries" roared to victory by picking up 54 House seats. Although Democrats had held the majority for four decades, there was ample evidence long before Election Day of how vulnerable many of them were.

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