More Anti-Democrat than Anti-Incumbent
Friday, May 28, 2010
It’s more perilous for an incumbent to be a Democrat than a Republican this year, in primaries as well as in the general election.
The year 2010 is proving “a tough year for the overdog,” as I wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal column. Coincidentally, National Journal’s Charlie Cook wrote a column published the same day entitled “Incumbents Face Twin Furies.” Cook noted that 12 House incumbents had won their primaries with 70 percent or less of the vote. Given the enormous advantages that House incumbents usually enjoy, which usually net them 80 percent or more in primaries against little-known challengers, that is a low percentage. It’s also a sign of genuine weakness and potential vulnerability in later primaries or, in districts that are not one-sided in partisan terms, in the general election. After all, the incumbent has been elected at least once before, and in many cases many times, and every primary voter shares a partisan affiliation with the incumbent. While Democratic spin doctors have been arguing that this is an anti-incumbent rather than an anti-Democratic year, Cook argued that both anti-incumbent and anti-Democratic winds are blowing this year.
Since Cook and I wrote, primaries have been held in five more states, bringing the total of states holding primaries to 12 so far this year: Illinois, Texas, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Nebraska, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Idaho. Those states elect 133 of 435 members of the House of Representatives, nearly one-third of the total; they also elect 9 of the 36 senators who will be chosen this year.
When we take a first look at the list of incumbent House members who won their primaries with 70 percent or less of the vote, the results tend to confirm the Democratic spin: ten Republican incumbents and ten Democratic incumbents won with less than 70 percent. Two Republicans and two Democrats won less than 50 percent of the vote. Only one of those, Democrat Alan Mollohan (West Virginia-1), was defeated; the others had multiple opponents and were running in states that don’t have runoffs when no candidate exceeds a threshold percentage (usually 50 percent, but 40 percent in North Carolina).
Here are the Republican incumbents who won 70 percent or less, in the order in which the primaries were held:
Ralph Hall (TX-4), 57%
There are some backstories here. Hall is the oldest member of the House. Souder resigned soon after the primary because of a sex scandal not disclosed before the vote. Burton, a longtime House member with some record of controversy, had two serious opponents and came close to losing. Schmidt has run behind the Republican base vote in general elections. Simpson is considered a moderate in one of the nation’s most conservative districts.
Here are the Democrats who concluded their primaries with less than 70 percent of the vote:
Danny Davis (IL-7), 67%
Two of these, Davis and Jackson Lee, are members of the Congressional Black Caucus and represent overwhelmingly Democratic districts. The other eight represent areas in or near the Appalachian chain, where Barack Obama ran very weakly in the 2008 Democratic primaries and where he ran behind traditional Democratic strength in the 2008 general election; he carried only two of these eight districts (NC-8 and PA-11). So while the subpar performance of some of the Republican incumbents listed above reflects personal factors, the subpar performance of many of the Democratic incumbents above suggests weakness in the president’s party.
We find much more evidence of this weakness when we look at the performance of all incumbents in all the districts in these 12 states’ primaries. The following table shows, for Republican- and Democratic-held districts, the number of seats with no incumbents running, the number in which incumbents had no opposition (or only write-in opposition), the number in which incumbents got more than 70 percent of the primary vote, and the number in which incumbents got less than 70 percent of the primary vote:
No incumbent No opposition > 70% to incumbent <70%
These results suggest that the anti-Democratic wind is stronger than the anti-incumbent wind. Nearly half of Democratic incumbents with opposition ran under 70 percent, while only about one-third of Republican incumbents with opposition ran under 70 percent. More than half of Democratic incumbents had no primary opposition—there’s no telling how many would have run under the 70 percent mark if they had, but it’s possible quite a few of them would have. If all incumbents had had primary opposition, and the number running under 70 percent had been the same proportion as among those who did have primary opponents, some 38 Democrats would have run under 70 percent as compared to 19 Republicans.
The results in the nine Senate races in these 12 states present a similar picture. Four of them had no incumbent running: in Republican-held seats in Ohio and Kentucky and Democratic-held seats in Illinois and Indiana. The two incumbent Republicans running, in North Carolina and Idaho, both won with more than 70 percent of the vote. Only one incumbent Democrat running did so, in Oregon. The other two Democratic incumbents won less than 50 percent of the vote: Arlen Specter, with 46 percent, was defeated in Pennsylvania and Blanche Lincoln, with 44 percent, was forced into a runoff in Arkansas. As I wrote in my May 26 column in the Washington Examiner, while much press attention has been devoted to intraparty strife in the Republican Party, there actually seems to be more such strife in the Democratic Party.
Conclusion: it’s more perilous for an incumbent to be a Democrat than a Republican this year, in primaries as well as in the general election. Democratic incumbents without primary opposition in states where the filing deadline has passed have good reason to heave a sigh of relief—at least until the fall campaign period begins.
List of districts in each category:
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
FURTHER READING: Barone specializes in analyzing regions and population trends. He has recently explained “What 1946 Can Tell Us About 2010,” detailed “How the Recession Has Changed American Migration,” and discussed the correlations between “Delayed Childbearing and Voting Behavior.” Barone also reported “In Britain, a Cautionary Tale for U.S. Parties,” considered “Immigration Reform: The New Third Rail,” and showed how “Low-Tax Texas Beats Big-Government California.”
Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.