PATCHWORK NATION -- October 25, 2010 at 4:11 PM ET
New Diversity Districts Appear Safe for Democrats, at Least for Now
Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., speaks during a DNC news conference in July; Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call via Getty Images
If Democrats are looking for safety this year, they have it in the New Diversity districts that dot the West Coast. But even in these safe seats, shifts in the economy and makeup of certain districts could be opening the door for growing Republican influence.
The 33 New Diversity districts, as defined by Patchwork Nation, are strongholds for the president's party, with the average Democrat cruising to a 30-point victory in a typical House race. They boast an ethnically diverse, middle-income population, with significant numbers of Asian-Americans.
Democrats' California Dream
Perhaps there is no more quintessential New Diversity district than California's 15th District. Running south from the end of San Francisco Bay, the district is the fifth wealthiest in the country. Democratic Rep. Mike Honda has represented the district for the past decade, and he's not going anywhere, said Scott Herhold, columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.
"He has a job for life, or so long as he wants it," Herhold said.
How safe is it? The New York Times has projected a 100-percent chance of a win for Honda over Republican Scott Kirkland this election. But unlike some of the more traditional Democratic bastions based in urban centers, the 15th District spans across Silicon Valley and Santa Clara County, encompassing both rural and urban populations.
The southern part of the district is sparsely populated and strongly based in agriculture. It is home to both family and commercial farms, including Gilroy Foods processing plants. It could not be more different from the northern part of the district, which is home to the growing urban populations of San Jose and Santa Clara. A number of successful corporations including Apple, Intel*, Applied Materials and eBay are based in this part of the district.
Washington in Flux
That is not to say all New Diversity districts are as stable as Honda's. Up the coast in Washington state, The New York Times handicappers have given Adam Smith a 94-percent chance of re-election. But underneath that comfortable number lays some troubling trends for the Evergreen State's Democrats. The Cook Political Report recently moved the race in the 9th District from solid Democratic to likely Democratic.
The recent rumblings of concern stem from a poll done by King 5, a Seattle news station, and SurveyUSA. That poll gave Smith a 3-point lead over Republican challenger Dick Muri.
"Polling has been all over the place," said Peter Callaghan, political columnist for the Tacoma News Tribune. He's skeptical of both the King 5 survey and a competing survey released by the Smith camp. Callaghan said a string of TV ads recently put out by Smith criticizing Muri has made him unsure if Smith really has the lead he has projected.
"Generally if you're up 19 points, you don't attack your opponent," Callaghan said.
Callaghan said Smith should win the district despite the polls and that Smith, who has represented the district for 14 years, is a savvy politician. "He's not going to get surprised or snuck up on," Callaghan said.
A Troop Surge in Washington?
Like California's 15th District, Washington's 9th District also hosts big-name corporations. Boeing, Alaska Airlines and Weyerhaeuser all have a strong presence in the district's economy. But unlike the 15th District in California, Washington's 9th District is on the verge of some major demographic changes that could complicate Smith's future.
Army base Fort Lewis, the West Coast's largest military installation, and McChord Air Force Base officially merged on Oct. 1 to become a joint base. Approximately 40,000 service members are stationed on the base, and an additional 15,000 civilians are employed there. The Army is Pierce County's largest employer, and the Air Force is the county's third largest.
Callaghan said it has become essential that Smith strongly support defense spending as a result of the military's economic influence on the area. Smith is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Air and Land Forces.
In addition to introducing legislation that would give family members of deployed service personnel guaranteed, unpaid leave to spend time with their loved ones, Smith has been quick during the campaign to point to the $17.8 million he secured last year for local defense-related projects.
Although the military influence does make it unique, Washington's 9th District still holds many of the key attributes that mark a New Diversity district. For example, in Federal Way, one of the larger cities of the district, more than 52 percent of students in the school district are members of a minority. More than 100 languages are spoken throughout homes in the school district. These include Spanish, Korean, Russian, Vietnamese and Samoan.
And as the military and minority voters jockey for position, Callaghan said it is the district's large suburbs outside Seattle filled with more independent voters that are likely to decide how elections trend in the near future.
"These are folks that don't necessarily demonstrate strongly with parties and tend to be voters that determine who will win elections," Callaghan said.
But with thousands more soldiers and airmen set to move to the combined base in the coming years, Smith will need to walk an increasingly moderate line to keep the re-election contests another safe Democratic win in this part of New Diversity America.
- For the record, Intel is a NewsHour underwriter.
Victoria Edwards is a student at the University of Montana's School of Journalism.