Nearly 99% of House Incumbents Won Their Primaries

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 11, 2012 · 11:09 PM EDT

Congressional job approval isn’t even near 20 percent but nearly 99 percent of incumbents seeking re-election won their primaries this year.

Despite all the stories about a purported anti-incumbent wave in which voters would throw out sitting members of all shape, size and party, the phenomenon simply hasn’t manifested itself, at least not through the primaries.

After Tuesday’s primaries, including Rep. David Cicilline’s (D) easy victory in Rhode Island’s 1st District, every state but Louisiana has completed its primaries and nearly all House incumbents seeking re-election survived --- 98.6 percent to be precise. That includes the five out of 365 Members who were defeated in races in which they didn’t face a fellow incumbent.

Eight incumbents lost primaries to fellow Members in races where sitting members were forced to run against each other, but those losses shouldn’t be included in any total that measures so-called anti-incumbent sentiment since one those Members had to lose no matter how popular (or unpopular) Congress was.

Looking at the five Members who lost to challengers, only a couple of them can be attributed primarily to the drag of incumbency.

Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Holden (D) was running in redrawn and more Democratic district in which the Blue Dog had to introduce himself to a majority of voters. Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt (R), Oklahoma Rep. John Sullivan (R), and Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns (R) might have been able to defeat their challengers, in spite of their incumbency, if they had taken their primaries more seriously from the beginning or run better campaigns. Rep. Silvestre Reyes’ loss in Texas might be the best and only example of anti-incumbency nabbing a victim. Even President Bill Clinton couldn’t save him.

Of course, some representatives had to work harder than ever and may have been held to a lower winning percentage, but they still prevailed.

Even though ties to Washington can be a liability for Members, other advantages of incumbency, such as higher initial name identification and easier fundraising, can more than offset the liabilities. Popular disapproval of Congress doesn’t mean that voters are ready to take out their anger on all incumbents.

Of course at least five dozen House incumbents are vulnerable in the general election, and majority of them could lose. But most of them will lose because of how their partisanship and voting records mismatches with their district -- not simply because they are current members of Congress.