Is This an Anti-Incumbent Year? Not So Far

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 21, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

Countless stories and hours of cable television have been filled with analysis describing this year’s elections as tantamount to an anti-incumbent wave.

But as the primaries come to a close, it’s clear that instead of throwing the bums out, voters have let the vast majority of incumbents move on to the general election.

“Plenty of commentators have misunderstood the electorate’s anger,” said GOP media consultant Brad Todd of OnMessage Inc., which works closely with the National Republican Congressional Committee. “They’re angry at the direction of the country and not the nature of incumbency.”

Through Tuesday’s primaries, more than 98 percent of House and Senate incumbents seeking re-election won their primaries. Still, it’s worth noting that the number of incumbents who failed to win renomination — seven — is more than in recent cycles.

But while there is widespread frustration with Washington, incumbency was not the driving force in this year’s Congressional casualties, Todd said.

“Most of the anger is driven at Democrats because they’re in power,” he added. “Some is driven at Republicans when voters conclude that a particular candidate is too close to Democrats.”

In Alaska, tea party conservatives portrayed Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski as too moderate. She lost her primary to little-known attorney Joe Miller in August.

In Utah, Republican Sen. Bob Bennett was denied even a spot in the primary when he failed to get enough delegates at the state convention. Similar to Murkowski’s, Bennett’s ouster was fueled by ideology — not because he was an incumbent.

Public polling suggested Bennett may have survived the GOP primary, but he never got that far, in part because of his vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

In other states, incumbents fell in primaries, but not necessarily because of their titles.

Sen. Arlen Specter’s loss to Rep. Joe Sestak in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary was one of the most high-profile incumbent losses this year. But if Specter had not been a Republican for more than four decades in elected office and then switched parties, Sestak would not have entered the race.

If Specter had not switched parties and sought re-election as a Republican, he would have faced a primary challenge from former Rep. Pat Toomey. But Toomey was driven by an ideological difference with Specter, just as he was six years ago when the two men first battled for the GOP nomination — not because Specter was an incumbent.

In Alabama, Rep. Parker Griffith’s loss in the Republican primary can also be blamed on his party switch. Had he sought re-election as a Democrat, he likely would have won renomination. Other incumbents were tripped up by ethical questions and the mood likely pushed them out the door.

State Sen. Mike Oliverio defeated Rep. Alan Mollohan in the Democratic primary in West Virginia’s 1st district, while state Sen. Hansen Clarke beat Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in the Democratic primary in Michigan’s 13th district.

Kilpatrick’s ouster was not surprising, considering she received 39 percent in the 2008 primary against two opponents, and her son, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, is in prison.

In South Carolina’s 4th district, GOP Rep. Bob Inglis lost the primary runoff 71 percent to 29 percent to state Rep. Trey Gowdy in June. Inglis’ defeat was part ideological — he voted for what is commonly referred to as the financial bailout in 2008 and against President George W. Bush’s troop surge in Iraq — and part incumbent fatigue. Inglis left Congress after the 1998 elections, abiding by a term-limits pledge. But he returned in 2004 after then-Rep. Jim DeMint (R) was elected to the Senate.

The idea of incumbents losing primaries is not unique to this cycle.

Four House Members lost in 2008: Reps. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), David Davis (R-Tenn.), Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) and Albert Wynn (D-Md.). Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.) lost in 2006, along with Sen. Joe Lieberman, who lost in the Connecticut Democratic primary. Texas Democratic Reps. Chris Bell and Ciro Rodriguez lost in 2004, and Sen. Bob Smith lost the Republican primary in New Hampshire in 2002.

Even some of the near-losses this year are better explained by factors other than incumbency.

Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln narrowly won renomination in Arkansas against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. She finished first in the initial three-way primary with 45 percent and first in the runoff, 52 percent to 48 percent.

But Halter ran because of Lincoln’s performance during the health care debate. Progressives thought the Senator was not strong enough in fighting for a robust public opinion, even though she eventually supported the measure. Halter did not run simply because she was an incumbent.

And in Colorado, Sen. Michael Bennet (D) survived a serious primary challenge from former state Speaker Andrew Romanoff. But since Bennet was appointed and not elected, it’s not surprising that he did not coast to the nomination.

Democrats should not get too comfortable or excited about Republican infighting. This fall, nearly six dozen Democratic House Members are considered to be at risk, compared with about 10 Republicans.