U.S. voters rarely boot lawmakers

Unpopular incumbents still hold advantage over challengers


The U.S. Congress is wildly unpopular. In fact, two-thirds of Americans want their own House member booted. And the ultraconservative tea party movement is dogging longtime Republican lawmakers.

So incumbents are nervous about the upcoming November elections, right?

No. Mostly they are not.

People talk about throwing the bums out, but voters keep sending the same bunch back in.

More than halfway through the party primaries, 293 House and Senate members have completed their quests for renomination during the primary season. The score: Incumbents 291, challengers 2.

What about November, when Republicans and Democrats face off in the general election?

It looks to be a dramatic midterm, all right, with Republicans, who are virtually certain to retain control of the House, pushing to seize control of the Senate. That would give them the power to essentially kill President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda for the remaining two years of his term.

More incumbents will be vulnerable in the general election than the primaries. Still, the vast majority of sitting lawmakers are snug in their seats.

Over the past five decades, voters have routinely returned 9 of 10 incumbent candidates to the House. Senate races are a bit less predictable, but usually more than 80 percent of incumbents win.

Why do these people keep winning?

It is harder for challengers to sell themselves to voters. Incumbents wield tremendous advantages. They raise big bucks from special interests, use their congressional offices to send voters mass mailings, build ties to businesses and advocacy groups in their districts, and benefit from name recognition. They have staff members back home working to keep constituents happy.

“If you know them, if you helped their father or sister or relative or friend, if you go to their events and show interest, if you do good staff work, you’re going to go back,” said former Rep. Connie Morella, who served 16 years in Congress.

A Republican in a heavily Democratic Maryland district, she was re-elected seven times, until her district boundaries were redrawn by Democrats to push her out in 2002.

But often, the redistricting process, which is known as gerrymandering and occurs every 10 years, favors incumbents. Political calculations have contributed to most districts becoming solidly Republican or solidly Democratic.

“The gerrymandering is terrible,” said Morella, now a professor at American University. “Few districts are truly competitive anymore.”

Only about four dozen of the 435 House seats are considered in play this year, meaning either party might conceivably win them in November. Many of those are open seats, vacated by lawmakers who are retiring or seeking another office.

In dozens of other cases in the House, only one of the two major parties will even have a name on the November ballot.

In the Senate, about a dozen of the 36 seats up for election might be truly competitive. That could be enough for the Republicans, who need to take six seats to win control of the upper chamber.

This year, Congress logged a confidence rating of 7 percent, the lowest Gallup has measured for any institution, ever. People do not put much attachment to their own representative anymore, either. A poll last month found that 65 percent of Americans say their own House member should lose.

Turnout is low in midterm elections, usually about 40 percent in the fall and often abysmal for primaries. Voters may feel they lack true choice.

Still, one shocker this primary season showed that establishment candidates can be ousted.

A virtual unknown, Dave Brat, toppled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia in a Republican primary — an unexpected victory for the tea party, which has mostly struggled against well-organized establishment Republicans this election season.

But such exciting races that draw national attention are misleading. Most of the House candidates, about 60 percent so far, did not have a soul running against them.