Will Wisconsin’s Tight Gubernatorial Race Impact Its US House Contests?

A study of 55 election cycles finds evidence that Badger State congressional races are more competitive when gubernatorial elections are close

scottwalker10.JPGThe Wisconsin gubernatorial contest between Scott Walker and Mary Burke is one of the most high profile in the country, and may end up being one of the most narrowly decided as well.

But as the winner of the Burke-Walker matchup seems headed for a low single-digit decision, the eight races just down the ballot for the U.S. House of Representatives are barely on the radar.

Part of that reason, of course, is that while Wisconsin is a purple state, some of its congressional seats are carved up into heavily partisan districts.

But while it is certainly the case that the state’s 2nd (Madison) and 4th (Milwaukee) districts are heavily Democratic and the 5th district (northern and western Milwaukee suburbs) decidedly skews Republican, Wisconsin nonetheless has five congressional districts where the partisan tilt is just five points or less according to Charlie Cook’s Partisan Voting Index: the 1st (R +3), 3rd (D +5), 6th (R +5), 7th (R +2), and 8th (R +2) CDs.

In theory, those seats should be ripe for competition, but the truth is congressional races have not provided much drama in the Badger State in recent decades.

For example, during the 2002-2010 period following redistricting after the 2000 Census, the average margin of victory was 37.4 points across the state’s 40 U.S. House races, with just five elections (12.5 percent) decided by single-digits.

That marked the third largest margin of victory in a redistricting period out of the 17 in state history (behind only 1922-1930 and 1982-1990) along with the second lowest rate of competitive contests (behind 1982-1990).

But will at least one congressional race be closely decided in 2014? And are congressional races at all related to the competitiveness of the gubernatorial election at the top of the ticket?

Smart Politics examined the 55 election cycles in state history in which Wisconsin’s gubernatorial and U.S. House elections occurred in the same cycle. (Elections for governor were held in odd-numbered years between 1849 and 1881 and are thus not included in this study).

All told, the gubernatorial race at the top of the ticket was decided by single digits in 24 of these 55 cycles – by an average of 5.1 points in these two-dozen races.

At the same time, the average margin of victory across the 230 U.S. House contests during these cycles was 22.2 points.

But what about when the gubernatorial race is a blow-out?

For the remaining 31 gubernatorial races where the victory margins were all in double-digits, the average victory margin across the 311 U.S. House races was noticeably higher – 31.3 points.

In short, uncompetitive gubernatorial races in Wisconsin are associated with a 41 percent higher margin of victory in races for the nation’s lower legislative chamber (from 22.2 to 31.3 points).

Additionally, there is a higher rate of U.S. House races decided by single digits in cycles with close gubernatorial contests.

In cycles with competitive gubernatorial races, 65 of the 230 elections for the U.S. House were decided by single-digits, or 28.3 percent.

For example, in 2010, Scott Walker defeated Tom Barrett by 5.7 points while three U.S. House contests were similarly decided by single-digits: Democratic Congressman Ron Kind defeated Dan Kapanke by 3.8 points in the 3rd CD, Republican Sean Duffy won an open seat contest over Julie Lassa in the 7th by 7.7 points, and Reid Ribble unseated Democrat Steven Kagen by 9.7 points in the 8th CD.

Meanwhile, in cycles with gubernatorial races decided by 10+ points, 23.2 percent of U.S. House races were decided by single digits (72 of 311).

In other words, there is a 22 percent increase in the rate of competitive congressional races in cycles with tight gubernatorial races (from 23.2 to 28.3 percent).

At the moment, the only congressional race that is getting any attention in Wisconsin this cycle is the open 6th CD to replace the long-serving Republican Tom Petri.

That race is listed as “likely Republican” by Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato and “safe Republican” by Stuart Rothenberg.

The 6th CD has been decided by less than 18 points just once since Petri took office: after redistricting in 1992 when Peggy Lautenschlager was defeated by 5.8 points.

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