Census Will Turn Incumbents Against Each Other

When the Census Bureau announced on Monday that West Virginia would lose one of its three seats in the U.S. House, Rep. Alex Mooney was prepared.

The Republican lawmaker, who has represented central West Virginia for six years, has quietly stockpiled campaign cash while easily dispatching Democratic challengers in this deep red district. He entered 2021 with over $2.7 million in the bank for his campaign, an enormous total for a low-key lawmaker in a safe seat.

Call it a rainy day fund for one of the most dreaded kinds of political bad luck that can befall a member of Congress.

Every 10 years, when congressional lines are redrawn based on population data from the latest Census, a lawmaker is inevitably placed in a colleague’s district. Those situations can produce the most brutal kind of election contest there is: incumbent versus incumbent. Even the prospect of such a fight has spurred many a member to instead retire early, having found themselves the loser in a game of political musical chairs.

Come January 2023, Mooney, apparently, does not want to be the West Virginia member of Congress out of a job. His fellow delegation Republicans—and possible rivals in the not-too-distant future—have campaign war chests a fraction of the size. Rep. Carol Miller, who represents the state’s south, has just $66,000 on hand.

Before the Census Bureau’s announcement, Mooney, Miller, and Rep. David McKinley signed a joint statement saying that “at this time, we all plan to seek re-election to Congress” and that they will consider the situation again when the state legislature redraws the map in the fall.

But the general rule with these incumbent cage matches, say operatives, is that those who start behind stay behind.

“These sorts of things are knife fights in a phone booth,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who previously worked at the party’s House campaign arm. “You need to move quickly and ruthlessly.”

West Virginia will hardly be the only stage for such maneuvering. Six other states will lose a congressional seat, and if the past is any guide, even those representing states that didn’t lose a seat are far from safe.

These contests inspire high drama and, often, a unique shock factor. Democrats still talk about the bitter 2012 race between Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, two ideologically similar Los Angeles Democrats, which ended up costing over $15 million. Near the end of the campaign, it even got physical after Sherman, then 58 years old, tried to put Berman, then 71, in a headlock during a debate. Sherman won, and remains in office.

In 2022, the stakes for such brutal party civil wars are even higher, because control of the House rests on a razor’s edge. In the last round of redistricting, the GOP held a commanding 50-seat majority; now, Democrats hold a six-seat majority. Every seat will matter, as will every dollar, so leaders in both parties will likely want to head off any potentially wasteful primaries that do not impact the path to the majority.

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