Voters Poised to Re-Elect Incumbents They Don’t Much Like

Incumbents in Congress
All signs indicate that this is not going to be a throw-the-bums-out year for incumbent members of Congress, despite the sour economy and low public approval ratings for the institution. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

For a member of the U.S. Congress, Republican or Democrat, the numbers could hardly look worse. Almost 8 in 10 Americans disapprove of lawmakers’ performance, and unemployment has been above 8 percent for 41 consecutive months.

It’s a recipe for a rout of incumbents in November’s election, as in 2010 when 56 were ousted. That won’t happen this year, say analysts.

Even when dissatisfaction with Congress in general runs high, incumbents traditionally can count on most voters being willing to support their own lawmakers. In the 10 general elections between 1990 and 2008, an average of 19 Senate and House members lost their seats.

“You just don’t see” a “sort of general anti-incumbent wave,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said in an interview. “It doesn’t exist. It’s a myth.”

There’s been scant evidence of anti-incumbent activity so far in the 2012 primaries. Eight House members and one senator, Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, lost bids for new terms. That total exceeds the seven incumbents denied re-nomination in 2010, with 20 of the 50 states yet to hold primaries this year. The increase in incumbent defeats, though, is largely the result of redistricting.

Incumbent Challenges

Four of the eight defeated House members faced off in primaries with colleagues. A fifth, Democratic Representative Tim Holden of Pennsylvania, lost to a challenger in a redrawn district that was 80 percent new to him.

In primaries later this year or in the general election, nine sets of incumbents are paired off against one another.

Spikes in incumbent losses and changes in control of congressional chambers usually occur when voter anger is channeled at one party -- a dynamic that existed in the past three elections and isn’t present this year, Abramowitz said.

In 2006, when Democrats won control of the House and Senate, and in 2008, when they augmented their majorities, Republicans bore the brunt of seat losses because of President George W. Bush’s unpopularity and scandals.

In 2010, Democrats suffered because they were defending large numbers of swing House districts and Republican voters were more motivated to oppose President Barack Obama’s policies than his supporters were to defend them. The upshot: Republicans regained control of the House and reduced the Democratic Senate majority.

Divided Power

The 2012 election probably won’t result in these types of upheavals partly because political power is divided in Washington, with Democrats occupying the White House and running the Senate while Republicans control the House. That keeps public discontent from focusing solely on one party.

A close presidential race between Obama and presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney also undercuts the prospects that one side will dominate November’s vote and defeat droves of the other party’s officeholders.

“Overall, it’s a deeply divided country, but it’s pretty evenly divided as well,” said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego. “And that doesn’t give either party any kind of hope for having a ’wave’ election.”

Competitive Races

The Washington-based nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates 53 of the 435 House races -- 12 percent -- as competitive, compared to 100 just before Election Day two years ago. One reason for the lower total is that Republicans utilized redistricting that followed the 2010 Census to aid potentially vulnerable House members elected that year, when the party’s gain of 63 seats -- which included open ones that a Democrat had held -- gave it the chamber’s majority.

“The Republicans controlled a disproportionate number of the state legislatures, and they were pretty effective in drawing some districts that strengthened their party’s candidates and made it less likely that strong challengers would emerge,” Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, said in an interview.

Incumbents in both parties also continue to wield long-standing advantages over challengers in fundraising, name recognition and campaign organization.

Playing Defense

Republicans have 242 House seats to defend in November, including one in Michigan that Thaddeus McCotter resigned from on July 6. That’s most for the party since the late 1940s, and Republican strategists are concentrating more on defending their seats than on unseating Democrats -- another factor that will reduce incumbent turnover.

“It is clear that House Republicans have made a large majority stronger and shrunken the playing field for House Democrats,” Guy Harrison, the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a memorandum in late March as the congressional line-drawing process drew to a close.

To win the House, Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats. Since 1974, when they picked up 48 seats three months after Republican President Richard M. Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal, only twice have Democrats gained at least 25 -- in 1982, when they picked up 26, and 2006, when they took over 30.

Democratic strategists say dozens of Republicans who won in 2010 won’t have the same political advantages in November, when the presidential election will yield a larger electorate that will favor their party more than the turnout did in 2010.

’Tough Environment’

“Democratic incumbents won in the tough environment of 2010 and are in a strong position going into 2012, while Republican incumbents won with a wave at their back in 2010 and remain out of touch and too extreme for middle class families of their districts,” Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an e-mail.

Likely voters prefer a Democratic candidate to a Republican candidate in U.S. House elections by 48 percent to 41 percent, according to a Bloomberg National Poll taken June 15-18.

The Senate, which Democrats control 53-47, will see significant turnover in November’s vote, though that owes more to retirements by 10 members than to anti-incumbent sentiment, analysts say. Of the 10 Senate races the Cook Political Report rate as toss-ups, six are for open seats.

“There will be turnover in the Senate, but that’s not exactly ’throw the bums out,’” Fowler said.

Senate Toss-Up Races

The four senators in toss-up races are Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana and Republicans Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Dean Heller of Nevada. In each case, their state voted for the opposite party’s presidential nominee in the 2008 election.

Senate and House incumbents may intensify their fundraising and campaigning because of the prospect of increased spending against them by outside groups with funding sources that are difficult to trace, Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland in College Park, said in an interview.

“Most incumbents run scared, and many incumbents will run particularly scared because they don’t know what will hit them in terms of outside spending,” Herrnson said.

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