Feb. 13, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Don’t Believe the Anti-Incumbent Narrative

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Tim Holden and other lawmakers are vulnerable in their upcoming primaries, but it is not, as some people claim, because of an “anti-incumbent” mood or Congress’ poor approval ratings, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

Though it probably won’t start for a few more days, the “anti-incumbent election” narrative will grow loud during the next few weeks, as a handful of Members of Congress find themselves in tough races. It won’t matter whether they are defeated in primaries or just squeeze through in tight, nasty contests. And it won’t matter that the narrative is wrong. Be prepared.

Yes, Congress is unpopular, but that is not why the handful of incumbents who lose primaries will come up short.

On Tuesday, 10-term Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Holden may well lose to opponent Matt Cartwright, a Scranton attorney who attended the 1992 Democratic National Convention as a Bill Clinton delegate.

Cartwright’s website says he has spent his life fighting “against corporations, insurance companies, big banks and corporate greed,” so it probably isn’t surprising that he is attacking Holden from the left, accusing him of lacking core Democratic values.

The Scranton lawyer is a member of the American Association for Justice, a benevolent-sounding group that was previously known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, a not-so-benevolent-sounding group.

Holden’s status as an incumbent isn’t an unadulterated asset, of course. But Congress’ reputation is not why Holden is in serious trouble, according to multiple sources and surveys.

When Pennsylvania’s GOP legislators redrew the state’s Congressional map, they changed Holden’s district radically. For the past decade, it has been a relatively compact district in southeast/south-central Pennsylvania that includes cities and towns such as Harrisburg, Hershey, Pottsville and Tamaqua.

The new, oddly shaped 17th district still includes Schuylkill County, Holden’s base, but it stretches up to northeast Pennsylvania, grabbing cities such as Scranton and Wilkes-Barre and taking in plenty of Democrats who have never heard of Holden.

About 80 percent of the redrawn district is new to Holden. He could never have been defeated in his old district, and he probably could never have been nominated in a district shaped the way the new one is.

A few weeks after that primary, on May 8, Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar will either lose to state Treasurer Richard Mourdock or squeeze by him in the GOP primary.

Lugar’s problems, however, have nothing to do with the “anti-incumbent” mood or Congress’ poor reputation. Instead, they have everything to do with his record and his horrible campaign.

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