On Tuesday, Rep. John Dingell, one of the most powerful and longest-serving Democrats in the House, defeated his colleague and nominal ally, Rep. Lynn Rivers, in a congressional primary in Michigan. Reporters had flocked from Washington, D.C., to cover the race. Headlines around the country trumpet the results today, followed by analyses of the implications for guns, abortion, the environment, and other issues that separated the candidates. But the real story of this election isn’t Dingell’s victory, Rivers’ defeat, or the role of this or that issue. The real story is how two Democratic members of Congress ended up running against each other.
When you read about an election such as the Dingell-Rivers race, you expect to find out what’s going on between the candidates. You figure some things will change. Maybe he’s up one week, maybe she’s up the next. What you don’t expect is a critical look at how we ended up with those two candidates. In the conventional math of political reporting, the candidates aren’t variables. They’re givens.
This tendency to focus on what’s happening within the election’s parameters, rather than on how and by whom the parameters were decided, is natural. But sometimes, it obscures a more interesting story. The most important political victories aren’t waged and won while the contest—an election, a congressional debate, or a Supreme Court oral argument—is formally underway. They’re won in the unofficial contest to set the terms on which the official contest will be fought. In many respects, the battle is over before it begins.
That’s what happened to Dingell and Rivers. Every 10 years, state legislatures draw new districts for local, state, and national elections. Because its share of the U.S. population declined, Michigan had to give up one of its 16 seats in the U.S. House. Democrats had nine of those seats; Republicans had seven. But Republicans controlled the Michigan state House and Senate as well as the governorship. So they rammed through the legislature a redistricting plan that forced Dingell and Rivers together in a single district. The GOP didn’t have to beat either of these incumbents in an election. All it had to do was set up the election so that one of the two was bound to lose.
Third parties, independent voters, and dissident movements often complain that the two-party system prevents alternative candidates from being seriously considered in elections. But in those situations, the terms of the election are stable, and the limiting of choices is obvious. You may have wanted Ralph Nader to be given a better chance in the 2000 presidential election, for example, but at least the electorate in that race was clearly defined, and Nader was clearly excluded from the debates. In races defined by redistricting, you don’t get even that courtesy. The electorate for each congressional seat is changed by legislators in back rooms as they move district lines. And rather than being deprived of the ability to vote for your favorite candidate, you can be forced, as thousands of Michigan Democrats were on Tuesday, to vote one of your favorite incumbents out of office.
Many articles on the Dingell-Rivers race mention that redistricting threw them together. But the political background of redistricting isn’t explained, and it’s important. Two years ago, Michigan held elections for the 110 seats in its House of Representatives. The parties split 104 of those seats, 52-52. Two of the remaining races (Districts 37 and 99) were won by fewer than 1,000 votes; two others (Districts 56 and 81) were won by no more than 1,500 votes. If Democrats had won those seats, they would have controlled the House and blocked the GOP’s redistricting plan. If they had won three of them, they would have held a tie. But they won none of them. By a grand total of 5,000 votes, the GOP won all four seats, controlled the House, and wrote the redistricting plan that forced the bewildered constituents of Dingell and Rivers to choose between them.
If you want to know why Lynn Rivers will be out of Congress come January, don’t look at the election she just lost. Look at those neck-and-neck races for the Michigan House two years ago, look at the paltry voter turnout in local elections generally, and ask yourself why nobody pays attention until the script is written and the curtain goes up.