by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Despite a Democratic Massachusetts congressman’s upset loss in a primary last week, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby offers some sobering news to those who would like to see more incumbents dropping like flies in 2014.
It’s not hard to understand why so many members of Congress come to regard incumbency much as medieval kings regarded the crown — theirs by divine right. The Economist noted recently that while 30 percent of Europe’s monarchs have been replaced since 2012, less than 4 percent of US House seats are seriously competitive in the November midterms. Kings and queens aren’t as hard to extricate as congressional incumbents.
But wait! Maybe this year will be different! Pollsters report that Congress has never been as despised as it is right now. In one national survey, 72 percent of likely voters say it would be better for the country if most incumbents were defeated this November. In another, only 29 percent of voters think their own representative deserves re-election. According to Gallup, public confidence in Congress is at an all-time low, with a pitiful 7 percent of Americans expressing confidence in the national legislature.
Ten weeks before Massachusetts Democrats jettisoned Tierney, Virginia Republicans, even more dramatically, ejected Eric Cantor — the first time any House majority leader has been defeated in a primary. Two other GOP incumbents, Ralph Hall of Texas and Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan, have also lost to primary challengers. Could this be the writing on the wall? Are voters readying a Nov. 4 massacre?
On both left and right, there are voices saying so. “I think we’ve heard an offshore warning, and I think a tsunami could be coming,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said after Cantor’s defeat in June. In the Detroit News, editorial page editor Nolan Finley foresees “an anti-incumbent wave that could become a kick-the-bums-out tsunami by Election Day.”
It’s a sweet dream. But don’t count on seeing it come true.
No matter how disgusted Americans get with Congress, no matter how vehement the nation’s “anti-incumbent” mood, roughly nine out of 10 US representatives who seek reelection win it. Over the last three decades, Congress’s plunging approval rates notwithstanding, the re-election rate for House members has dipped below 90 percent only twice. Gerrymandered districts, polarized voting blocs, and weak (or nonexistent) challengers are more than enough to keep most members of Congress safe. No “tsunami” endangers Capitol Hill.