Three out of eight US voters live in a congressional district represented by the opposite party of who they voted for for president. This figure is true for both Biden and Trump voters.

This makes you think safe Democrat districts or safe Republican districts would be represented by people born in other parts of the country they would not reasonably be able to win a general election in. But mostly not as far as I can tell.

Why don't more people who want to be representatives move to seats that are safe for the party they are members of?

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    There's a derogatory term for a politician who moves to a district that appears to be safe: Carpetbagger. The voting public for the most part disfavors carpetbaggers. When a long-time incumbent is unseated, it usually happens because of a candidate from the opposing party, but also occasionally because of a candidate from within who is not a carpetbagger. Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 12:38
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    Note that also countries having a chamber where the PM is expected to represent a riding typically make sure that this riding is safe for the PM or party leader. For example, BC's PM, Horgan, is MLA for en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langford-Juan_de_Fuca. Previously another PM, different party, had to be provided a safe-ish landing zone for similar reasons. I know, different political systems, but still something about moving/not moving to safe seats. Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 22:49
  • And, if you take Beto in Texas, he's a player on the Dem national stage precisely because he went on a limb to take on Ted Cruz in a battle he was expected to lose. Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 23:20
  • Also safe seats nowadays typically require you to cater to the "extreme" wing of your party. Many republican moderates, even those who had their seat for decades, were taken out by tea partiers in the 2010 - 2014 elections, for example. People in the center don't tend to vote in primaries.
    – eps
    Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 13:21
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    @DavidHammen indeed, it would be interesting to see whether there are any common elements to successful campaigns of so-called carpetbaggers. One thing I noticed about Hillary Clinton's senate campaign (for the seat being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had announced his retirement) was that she put in a lot of hard work in traditional "retail politics" and, I think critically, studying the important political issues in every region of the state. She also had prominent New York Democrats publicly encouraging her to run.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 13:51

4 Answers 4


Why don't more people who want to be representatives move to seats that are safe for the party they are members of?

Such districts tend to be represented by someone who is very well established, long serving, well placed in terms of committee assignments, and popular. Where that is not the case, the primary is usually very competitive. It is easier for the safe party to win the general election, but it is not easier for someone who is relatively new to the district to win the party's nomination.

In a comment, you note:

It is not just easier for the safe party to win, it is all but guaranteed.

That is true, but consider what that means for the potential congressional candidate who decides to move to the district. Put yourself in that person's shoes: it doesn't at all mean that you will be elected, because, in order to be elected, you must first win the party's nomination. You will start the primary battle at the bottom of a long uphill slope, disadvantaged by your vulnerability to accusations from your opponents that you do not truly understand the district because you have not lived there long enough. Yes, you are a member of the party that is "all but guaranteed to win" the general election, but so are all of your opponents.

Yes, people have done this, and they have done it successfully, but success is more likely if they focus on districts with a weak incumbent, regardless of party.

But ultimately, the question "why don't more people do this" will elicit responses focusing on the factors that weigh against making such a move. The principal such factor is the difficulty of winning the party's nomination. Yes, a Republican who has zero chance of being elected to congress in New York's 8th district will have a higher probability of being elected in Kentucky's 5th district than in New York's 8th, assuming that the person has a nonzero chance of winning the primary, because the probability of winning the election is effectively equal to the probability of winning the primary. But the probability of winning the primary will still be very low.

A better strategy might be to move to New York's 11th district, which is a far less safe seat for the Republican party, but where a Brooklyn native is far more likely to be seen as a viable candidate. An even better strategy would probably be to find a close district with an unpopular democratic incumbent.

The other answer addresses another point that I decided to avoid for reasons of focus. In so doing, it calls attention to this paragraph from the question:

This makes you think safe Democrat districts or safe Republican districts would be represented by people born in other parts of the country they would not reasonably be able to win a general election in. But mostly not as far as I can tell.

The apparent reasoning here is faulty. People from safe districts for the other party who want to be in congress do have a better chance of being elected if they move to safe districts from their party. That does not mean, however, that they have a better chance of being elected from safe districts than do the natives of those districts.

  • It is not just easier for the safe party to win, it is all but guaranteed. Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 10:59
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    @NumberFile that's not the point. The hard part is becoming the candidate. Either there is an incumbent who is almost guaranteed the nomination, or there are a bunch of locals who think it is "their turn", and have some amount of support amongst the local party apparatus. Or somewhere between those, with an incumbent only favoured to win the nomination but still with existing support for their candidacy
    – Caleth
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 11:02
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    @NumberFile I have expanded the answer in response to your comment.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 12:24
  • Something you might add is how these safe seats require catering to the extreme ends of the party. When long time incumbents do get taken out, it's pretty much always because they were moderate or near the center during a time of upheaval. Eg the tea party takeover, most notably Cantor (a republican majority leader) being taken out by a complete nobody.
    – eps
    Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 13:25
  • @eps that's interesting (and I suppose Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's election is another example supporting this observation), but I don't see how it discourages people from moving to a safe district to seek election. Presumably it would affect the campaign choices of someone who did do so. I'm just not sure how it fits with this answer. If you post your own answer please ping me with a comment so I can upvote it.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 13:33

This makes you think safe Democrat districts or safe Republican districts would be represented by people born in other parts of the country they would not reasonably be able to win a general election in.

Those long-held seats are not necessarily safe seats for the current party. They are instead safe seats for the current incumbent, regardless of party affiliation. The election rules favor incumbents. The voting public also favors incumbents. Incumbents who have served multiple terms typically will have wrangled their way onto multiple committees, and oftentimes onto the most important committees. Voting out a multiple term incumbent inherently means a Congressional district will be surrendering a lot of political clout for the district. Those who vote in both primaries and in general elections are well aware of this.

  • how do the election rules favor incumbents? Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 12:10
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    @EkadhSingh-ReinstateMonica The incumbent can use franking privileges, all year round. Opponents cannot. The incumbent is generally treated as a shoe-in in the primary. Opponents are strongly discouraged by party officials and fundraisers from running in the primary. This is an informal voting rule, and doesn't always work; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a good example. Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 12:21
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    @DavidHammen "shoo-in"
    – Glen Yates
    Commented Oct 4, 2021 at 19:28
  • @David Hammen: WRT franking privileges, I can't remember the last time I got something from an incumbent Senator or Congresscritter outside of election season. when I got about the same amount from their opponents.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 4:06
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    @GlenYates Thanks. Unfortunately, while I can edit my answer, I cannot edit my comment where I erroneously wrote shoe-in rather than shoo-in. Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 10:58

Running for Congress is still quite difficult, even if you're in a safe seat for your party.

Imagine you move 2,000 miles, find a place to live, and start running for office. You need to do a billion things: fundraise, hire campaign staff, hire and manage vendors, get on the ballot (sometimes this requires obtaining a number of signatures and/or paying a filing fee), recruit volunteers, obtain endorsements, hold events and get people to come to them, deal with campaign finance reporting, get favorable press coverage, and many, many other things. And of course you'll need to have a meaningful message for why anyone should vote for you, which means understanding what voters in your district care about.

All of that is hard for anyone to do. It's not all that hard to comply with the procedural steps to become an officially declared candidate for the office, but it's much harder to get people to take you seriously and care that you're running unless they have some reason to do so. If you've just moved into town yesterday, it's unlikely that local elected officials will even meet with you, let alone give you their endorsements. You won't know anyone local to ask for donations (and you're running in a safe seat, so prospective donors from far away won't even have a "help your party take control of the House" motive to donate). The press won't see you as a serious candidate and won't really cover your campaign. Other important political actors (unions, business organizations, party old-timers, politically engaged youth, etc...) won't know who you are and probably won't give you the time of day. Nobody will come to your campaign events because they've never heard of you.

Because of all this, serious candidates usually work their way up, getting to know the political players in their area, building a network they can rely on for support, helping with other campaigns, running for local and state offices and leadership positions in their political party, and only running for Congress if they feel they're in a good position as competitive candidate. That doesn't necessarily mean you need to run in the place you were born (my member of Congress was born and raised 2,500 miles away from the district and nobody cares), but it does mean the typical route involves spending enough time somewhere to have built up a local political network. Around 80% of Congress held prior elected office before they ran for Congress, though the number of successful candidates without that experience has been increasing in recent cycles.

And your opponents will either be an incumbent—who will already have a large and established network to rely on—or current elected officials who also have local name recognition, contacts, and support.

It's possible that someone might short-circuit that process if they're quite wealthy (you can't necessarily buy your way to winning the election, but you may be able to buy the ability to be taken seriously), famous and/or have some sort of local network you can tap into for support. And elections are messy business where anything can happen, so it's always possible that you come out of nowhere and win, but it's going to be a lot easier if you have that local network first.


Political parties tend to avoid, whenever possible, turning "Safe seats" into potential "Swing seats"

There's a few issues which help explain why there's the primary challenges mentioned above - and the name recognition, that boil down to why the party themselves try to avoid making the strategy of moving to safe seats to run for a candidacy hard in the first place.

Changing out your incumbent for a newer candidate is always a riskier move than continuing with your existing incumbent; you've built up momentum over elections to solidify their "safeness", and this allows you to know how people in the riding react to the incumbent. That is, they vote for the incumbent.

Now granted, that's not always a given - sometimes an incumbent resigns, or tries to aim for a Presidential run, and you need to account for a replacement, or maybe you're looking for a replacement because an incumbent died. But until then, a political party can spend less on the incumbent's campaign and get desirable results given the benefits of spending in the previous election, so there's not much incentive to change horses in mid-stream. It's even a part of the message a political party can leverage - if you like what the incumbent candidate does for the riding, vote for them again.

As a result, fundraising from a "Safe seat" can be allocated to existing "Swing seats", and help in more difficult ridings. The incumbent has a proven track record of getting some funding from their supporters, and can use the existing groundwork they've done to help out with this. Or in short - people give fundraising donations to candidates they already know and trust.

Swapping out an incumbent candidate for an up and coming candidate means that you have to start from scratch on all of that - doubly so if the up and coming candidate is from out of the riding. Campaigning from scratch is basically about getting your name out there, and if you're from the riding, more people will already know your name. If you give up that advantage, your opposition party runner basically becomes the more well known name in the election, turning your seat from "Safe" to "Swing", because even if you have the same policy positions as the previous incumbent, everybody already knows who's trying to run against you.

Even in a solidly safe riding, you don't want to have to get caught flat-footed and find out that a majority of the voters who appeared to give you a "Safe" seat were in fact swing voters who just voted for your incumbent.

Party unity is easier to show when you aren't replacing an incumbent in a "Safe seat", because you're supporting a candidate that already is voted into that riding - shaking it up when you lose a riding is a sign that you're attempting to adapt and address concerns people have in the riding.

There are times when you'd want to pivot to a new issue in your riding - and it's usually something you'd want the incumbent candidate to run in so that they can pivot to it within their existing platform.

If you're the challenging party, this is a bit easier to swap out the candidate - if they lost, what you want is to find a candidate that can support your party in the riding - in a way to make the riding go from "Safe for incumbent" to "Swing for our party instead".

If you're challenging an incumbent within your own party, you need a strong reason to have an incentive to change the running platform - which is hard either way, but easier if you're from the riding itself, and can say "These are policies I think we should implement to tackle problems our incumbent position is not already."...but either way, you're running the risk that you're making the party seem like it's infighting over policy minutia. Political parties may be fighting over policy minutia internally, but you don't want to give the outward opinion of it. For that reason, primaries and caucuses are there to allow the party to come to a unified opinion, and to try and reduce the possibility of people within the party disagreeing on election day - and just writing in their preferred candidate that didn't win those discussions, and split the vote.

  • 2
    This is wrong. Every ten years the party in power of a state's political boundaries gets to revamp those political boundaries. Giving the opposing party a few exceptionally safe districts is one way to gerrymander districts. Splitting up the dominant party's exceptionally safe districts into marginally safe districts is another gerrymandering technique. The party in power typically does not want to have exceptionally safe districts as that would mean they've done a bad job at gerrymandering. Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 11:10

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