Sabato's Crystal Ball

Sanford Joins “the Underachievers”

Kyle Kondik, House Editor May 9th, 2013

In winning his special election victory on Tuesday night, incoming Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) joined a dubious but sizable bipartisan House caucus: The Underachievers.

Many House observers — including the Crystal Ball — have focused, understandably, on the small number of House members elected from districts won by the other party’s presidential nominee. These represent obvious targets for the other party, although there are only a handful of these districts (nine Democrats reside in seats won by Mitt Romney, and 17 Republicans occupy seats won by President Obama). So in an effort to expand their maps, strategists from both parties will also look at The Underachievers, who ran behind their party’s presidential nominee in their districts. Sanford is in the club because he won about 54% of the vote in the special election, but Mitt Romney won about 58% in the district in last November’s presidential election.

Close to three of every 10 House representatives are members of The Underachievers. These 60 Democrats and 63 Republicans could be vulnerable in a primary or general election, but there are plenty of extenuating circumstances that explain their underperformance, too.

Chart 1: House Democrats who ran behind President Obama in their districts

Chart 2: House Republicans who ran behind Mitt Romney in their districts

Notes: *Represents members who ran against members of their own party in the fall general election (applies to some races in California and the 3rd District runoff in Louisiana; in the LA-3 race, the runoff results were used). ^Represents members elected in 2013 special elections. Names in bold are freshmen members; new members with previous service time, like Sanford, are counted here as freshmen.

Source: Election results from state-level sources; 2012 district-level presidential results from Daily Kos Elections.

The most obvious and common reason for a member to be on this list is because he or she is a freshman: 85 new members were elected either last November or in a special election since the November election (Sanford and Democratic Rep. Robin Kelly of IL-2), and of those more than half — 45 members (23 Republicans and 22 Democrats) — underperformed their party’s presidential nominee. That makes sense; it’s harder to run as a challenger than as an incumbent. As they become better known in their districts, many of these members will improve their performance over time (which would be unsurprising in an institution where on average more than nine of every 10 members who run for another term get it).

Some of the biggest underachievers are a number of California Democrats, but there’s a big caveat. The Golden State instituted a new election system in 2012: All candidates from all parties run against each other in the same primary, and the top two finishers advance to the general election. So in some instances — marked with asterisks on the charts above — two members of the same party face off in the general election. That explains why some Democratic members severely underperformed President Obama — Rep. Janice Hahn (D, CA-44) is the biggest “underachiever” on this list, but she ran against a fellow Democrat, ex-Rep. Laura Richardson, last November. Hahn, a white woman representing a district that is only about 7% white, will probably continue to face primary challenges in her district, which because of California’s rules will often extend into the general election given how Democratic the district is (Obama won 84.7% there).

Underperformance can be a sign of past or future primary trouble for others, too. For instance, Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R, TN-4) ran almost 10 points behind Mitt Romney in 2012, but DesJarlais’ embarrassing personal history explains why he lagged. If DesJarlais somehow wins his 2014 primary, Democrats might have a shot at him, but that’s only owing to his own personal weakness, not because his blood-red district (65.3% for Romney) has any interest in electing a Democrat. Some other underperformers on this list faced primary trouble last year — like Reps. Spencer Bachus (R, AL-6) and Charlie Rangel (D, NY-13) — which could have also affected their general elections (although they still won by huge margins).

Several potential Senate candidates are included on this list. The biggest name that jumps out is that of Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D, HI-1). If the handful of members from California who ran against members of their own party in the general election is excluded, no current House member ran further behind his or her party’s presidential nominee than Hanabusa did in her Honolulu-based district in 2012. In Hanabusa’s defense, President Obama has a special appeal in Hawaii, which makes the Aloha State seem more Democratic at the presidential level now than it usually is. For instance, Hanabusa’s current district — which changed very little in post-2010 redistricting — only gave John Kerry a 53%-47% victory over George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential race, as opposed to the sky-high 69.7% of the vote it gave to Obama last November. Still, these results lead one to question Hanabusa’s appeal as she seeks to unseat appointed Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) in a primary. Other potential Senate candidates who ran behind their presidential nominee in 2012 (though by much, much smaller margins than Hanabusa) are Reps. Kristi Noem (R, SD-AL), Steve Daines (R, MT-AL), Tom Cotton (R, AR-4) and Justin Amash (R, MI-3). All four are newer members of the House, and Cotton and Daines are freshmen. In other words, these results don’t tell us much about how these representatives might perform if they tried to move up to the Senate.

Redistricting explains some of the underperformers. Six of the nine Republicans who now represent North Carolina in the House ran behind Romney, and Republicans heavily redistricted that state in order to pick up seats there (they largely did, winning three Democratic-held seats and nearly winning a fourth). Three of the six Republican Tar Heel State underperformers are first-time representatives; Rep. Richard Hudson (R, NC-8) ran about five points behind Romney, but that’s because he defeated a Democratic incumbent, ex-Rep. Larry Kissell (D). In all likelihood, 2012 will probably be the hardest race he faces under the current map. On the other side of the ledger, the Democratic redraw of Illinois allowed Democrats to grab several seats there, but many of their winners lagged behind favorite son Obama. Notably, Rep. Bill Foster (D, IL-11) actually ran ahead of Obama, yet his district seems to be receiving outsized attention from Republicans, while there’s hardly a peep of anyone trying to run against Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D, IL-8), the war hero who nonetheless lagged behind Obama in her district (and ran against a particularly weak Republican incumbent, loudmouth ex-Rep. Joe Walsh).

National Democrats and Republicans sifting through this list can find some targets, although some are more attractive than others. Democrats, for instance, could try to dislodge freshmen Reps. Keith Rothfus (R, PA-12) and Andy Barr (R, KY-6), who each defeated solid Democratic incumbents in strong Republican presidential districts. But Rep. Jackie Walorski (R, IN-2) might be more vulnerable. She’s a freshman too, but unlike Rothfus and Barr, she did not face an incumbent in 2012, and she lagged further behind Romney than all but two Republican members of the House: the aforementioned DesJarlais, and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R, OK-2), who won an ancestrally Democratic seat in 2012 (only two Republicans had ever been elected to it prior to Mullin).

Two of the worst Democratic underperformers on this list, Reps. David Cicilline (D, RI-1) and John Tierney (D, MA-6), had unique problems in 2012 — Tierney’s family was embroiled in a criminal case, and Cicilline faced questions over his stewardship of Providence while mayor. Will these problems blow over, or will these two New England Democrats continue to underperform?

In many of these races, significant third party challengers siphoned votes from one or both candidates. For instance, Rep. Dan Maffei (D, NY-24) ran about eight points behind Obama, but a Green Party candidate also won close to 8% of the vote in the race. Presumably, that candidate siphoned more votes from  Maffei than from his Republican opponent, ex-Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle.

Nonetheless, Maffei was one of seven Underachievers who not only lagged behind their party’s presidential nominee, but also won less than 50% of the vote in their districts. The other Democrats are the aforementioned Tierney (MA-6), along with Reps. Carol Shea-Porter (NH-1) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-9); the Republicans were Walorski (IN-2) as well as Reps. Dan Benishek (MI-1) and Rodney Davis (IL-13). All could face stiff challenges.

Meanwhile, Sanford’s days of being challenged by Democrats could very well be over, though his membership in The Underachievers is but one reason why his next primary could be his last.