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Let’s Poke Holes in the ‘Anti-Incumbent’ Hype

Here Are the Facts: So Far This Cycle, 98 Percent of Congressional Incumbents Have Been Renominated

My heart sank when I saw my friend Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post write about this cycle’s elections and whether they really deserved the “anti-incumbent” moniker that they have received. Damn it, I thought, there goes another half-written column that I have to toss into the trash.

But Chris encouraged me to offer my take, even though he did a good job dissecting the issue.

The narrative that this is an anti-incumbent political year is already well-established, and only a fool would fight it. So here goes. While there is some truth to the storyline, the narrative being pounded into your head daily on television and in print is clearly misleading.

There are plenty of data showing that voters distrust politicians, are unhappy with the direction of the country, have a low opinion of Washington institutions and officeholders, and are sympathetic to “outsider” candidates preaching change.

Whether you look at recent polling by ABC News/Washington Post (June 3-6), the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (March 18-21), CBS News (May 20-24) or NBC News/Wall Street Journal (May 6-10), you will see voter anger and dissatisfaction, with voters often less supportive of incumbents. And this same message is showing up in state-level and district-level data, as well.

But this mood has not resulted in voters engaging in a scorched-earth policy against incumbents or in most “establishment” candidates falling in primaries. It simply hasn’t happened.

Incumbents have lost, and so have some “establishment” candidates. But the results have many explanations, most of which have nothing to do with incumbency. Alvin Greene’s victory in the South Carolina Democratic Senate primary ought to be proof of that. (Surprisingly, I haven’t yet heard anyone say he won because he was the ultimate “outsider.”)

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) was denied access to the primary ballot by conservatives angry over one of his votes in particular. He may well have won renomination (and subsequently re-election) if he had made the ballot, but an odd nominating system that exaggerates the power of a relative few activists (conservative activists in this case) caused his defeat.

Like Bennett, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who is expected to lose a runoff, has aroused opposition on his political right for selected votes. Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.) lost his primary because of ethics problems.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.) lost their respective primaries not because they are incumbents, but because they are party-switchers. Party-switchers often have problems winning primaries in their new parties because they were once viewed as political enemies and voters in their new party have trouble embracing them. Their losses had nothing to do with their incumbency. Nothing.

Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) lost renomination because of scandals and incompetence, not the general mood of voters.

Among the handful of “establishment” candidates who lost are Republican former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan in Pennsylvania, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, former Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden and Idaho Congressional hopeful Vaughn Ward — none of whom was an incumbent in any sense of the word.

Buchanan’s campaign was inept, Lowden and Ward said absurd things during their campaigns that discredited themselves, and Grayson was uninspiring. They could have lost during any cycle.

Cillizza describes the “anti-incumbent storyline” as “overblown,” and he is exactly right.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) was renominated in May with more than 79 percent of the vote while Ward, the favorite for the GOP nomination in Idaho’s 1st district, was losing his primary.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was re-nominated with almost 90 percent of the vote in his May primary. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was re-elected with 83 percent, while Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) drew 84 percent in his primary. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) drew 80 percent to win renomination in California.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) and South Dakota Sen. John Thune (R) were unopposed for renomination.

If this is such an “anti-incumbent” or “anti-establishment” year, then why do some — most — incumbents and establishment-backed candidates win easily? So far this year, 98 percent of Congressional incumbents seeking re-election have been renominated.

I don’t doubt that the public’s mood has fueled some outsider candidates, and that some lesser candidates have done better in this environment and this cycle than they would have done had they run in 2000, 2002 or 2004.

And as I have already noted, incumbency, support from Washington, D.C., or being a Member of Congress aren’t the assets this cycle that they have been in previous cycles. That is clear. But fitting every result into an exaggerated narrative doesn’t help anyone understand what is happening.

Conservatives certainly are angrier and more mobilized than I’ve seen them in years, and in many races they are lining up behind conservative candidates who criticize incumbent Republicans for not being conservative or confrontational enough.

And in a few Democratic primaries, more liberal voters and activists have taken on incumbents not identified with the party’s left (Specter and Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, for example).

But come November, we will have a rather traditional midterm election. Angry voters will turn out to vote against the party in charge. And that’s why, ultimately, 2010 will be remembered as a Republican wave election, not an anti-incumbent year.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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