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Return of the 'Marginals'

In his column Nov. 30 in the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne wrote about the campaign for political civility being launched by former Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

No doubt Leach has a daunting task in this polarized environment. But there may already be some good news. The rise in safe one-party seats that he notes as a contributor to excessive partisanship has been partially offset by a recent rise in the number of “marginal,” or competitive, congressional districts.

In 2008, a total of 63 House winners were elected with less than 55% of the total vote – often the quantitative definition of a competitive race. In a body with 435 members, 63 may not seem like many. But it is nearly twice the number of “marginal” winners in 2004, when there were only 32.

Last year’s sub-55% victors comprise an eclectic group. It includes Republicans Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson of South Carolina and Anh Cao of Democratic New Orleans, the lone House Republican to vote for the health care bill, as well as Democrats Alan (‘Republicans want you to die quickly”) Grayson of Florida and Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee.

In the current political climate, the 29 marginal House Democrats are probably the most vulnerable in 2010. But if the winds shift in the months ahead, the Republicans could find some of their 34 marginals at risk as well.

In the meantime, we can wish good luck to Jim Leach and all others who are working to increase the level of civility in political discourse. Significant improvement is badly needed.

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