Veteran House incumbents cling to seats as districts evolve

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FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2019 file photo, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., asks a question on Capitol Hill in Washington. Veteran representatives facing tight reelections in include Peterson of Minnesota and Steve Chabot of Ohio. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON – As he logs another campaign season piloting his single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza around his vast, crimson-red Minnesota district, voters greet Rep. Collin Peterson by name. But something else is hauntingly familiar as the Democrat seeks a 16th term in Congress.

“There are so many Trump signs out here you wouldn't believe it," Peterson, 76, said recently.

Much of the focus in this year’s fight for House control will be on dozens of freshmen Democrats who gave the party its majority in 2018 by capturing Republican-held seats. But there’s a smaller category of lawmakers like Peterson and GOP Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio who also merit attention: long-term incumbents of both parties fighting to preserve their careers.

Like their newer, more vulnerable colleagues, these congressional veterans are at the mercy of the country’s growing partisan fragmentation. This trend, which President Donald Trump has intensified, has seen conservative rural districts turn increasingly Republican while suburban voters exhausted by his discord-driven presidency flee the GOP in droves.

“These days for many voters, just seeing an ‘R’ or ‘D’ next to a name, that's enough," said Gary Jacobson, political science professor emeritus at the University of California San Diego.

Trump carried Peterson’s district by 31 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election, his biggest margin in any of the 29 House seats Democrats hold in districts Trump won.

Over 90% of House incumbents are usually reelected, thanks to name recognition and campaign fundraising advantages. But they're not immune to defeat. In the 2018 Democratic wave, 30 representatives seeking reelection — all Republicans — were defeated, including seven who'd served at least a decade. One, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., was in the House for 30 years.

This year, around a dozen representatives who've served at least five two-year terms have potentially competitive contests. Most are Republicans, whose numbers in this category would be higher if eight others who faced difficult races in states including Georgia, North Carolina and Texas had sought reelection rather than retiring.