By Steve Brawner
In April, just 11 percent of Americans said they approved of Congress’ performance, and 80 percent said they disapproved, according to an Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll. A Gallup poll in May found only 22 percent of Americans say most members of Congress deserve re-election, while 72 percent say they do not. And yet guess how many midterm primary elections congressional incumbents have lost this cycle?
As PBS Newshour pointed out, incumbents had won 139 of 139 contested races prior to this week. They won 45 of 45 last week. On Tuesday, Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Tex., became the first incumbent defeated. One of Congress’ last two World War II veterans, he is 91 years old and is in his 17th term.
We’ve all heard the Ben Franklin quote that nothing is certain except death and taxes. Almost as certain is being re-elected to Congress. In 2012, 90 percent of House incumbents running for re-election were victorious, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Going back to 1964, it’s never been lower than 85 percent, and five times it’s been 98 percent. Re-elections for Senate incumbents have not been quite as automatic through the years, but 91 percent were re-elected in 2012.
How can Americans hate Congress but so rarely vote to change it? One reason: The way the system is designed, voters don’t have a chance to vote against the institution. They only vote for or against their own congressman, who seems all right and may have helped them with a problem. Partly because of the way House districts have been drawn, there’s a good chance their congressman agrees with them on a number of issues. Using modern data-mining techniques, he or she knows what those issues are and how to communicate them. Because we live in such a polarized environment, voters often blame the other side instead of their own members.
There isn’t space to list all of the other advantages incumbents have, but money is an obvious one. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the average incumbent House member raised $1.6 million in campaign contributions in 2012, compared to $268,000 raised by challengers. U.S. Senate incumbents raised an average of almost $12 million, compared to challengers’ $1.4 million. Those numbers skew against challengers because they include all candidates who filed campaign reports, including minor candidates who raised little money.
The system’s imperfections aren’t insurmountable, of course. Thanks to the internet, almost all voters have access to enough information to make informed, creative choices at the ballot box. That would require us to base our decisions on research rather than impressions gleaned from 30-second TV ads and superficial media coverage – which, unfortunately, we don’t often do.
While incumbent congressmen rarely lose elections, there is turnover thanks to retirements and other causes. Some members don’t run again because they know they would lose or face a tough fight. The Cook Political Report revealed in December 2012 that, from 2008 to 2012, nearly 40 percent of the Senate had turned over. USA Today quoted Cook in January 2013 saying that 39 percent of House members, including nearly half the Republicans, started this current term with less than three years of experience.
That kind of turnover is reflected in Arkansas. After November, at least two of Arkansas’ six congressional seats, the House 2nd and 4th Districts, will be occupied by a new representative. If Rep. Tom Cotton defeats Sen. Mark Pryor, half the delegation would turn over this year. In fact, Arkansas’ entire delegation would be different than it was before the election of 2010. The only elected official remaining from that time would be Sen. John Boozman, but he was serving in the House four years ago.
So the good news is that turnover does occur in Congress, giving the institution new blood and fresh ideas. The bad news? It doesn’t usually happen because of the voters, who are unhappy with Congress but, for many reasons, don’t seem able to do much about it.