Last month, I argued that the influx of outside money into the political system was a boon for competition, putting on notice powerful incumbents from President Obama on down. And on the congressional side, we’re already beginning to see the dramatic implications when underdog challengers get help from third-party groups in getting their message out.
For all the talk about Congress’s rock-bottom approval ratings, a genuine anti-incumbent election in which members of both parties lose seats is exceedingly rare. But that’s because motivated citizens who want to take on their powerful members—within their own party, no less—face inordinate obstacles. It usually takes a major scandal or ideological apostasy. The number of genuine “Mr. Smiths” coming to Washington is quite small because of built-in advantages for sitting members, none bigger than the financial gap.
That all could change, thanks to a new super PAC that is testing the theory of incumbency and whether most members are really as unbeatable as perceived. Taking advantage of the liberalized campaign finance rules post-Citizens United, the Campaign for Primary Accountability is spending small chunks of money against at least 12 incumbents it views as potentially vulnerable in primaries. In the past, even unpopular lawmakers usually managed to dodge challenges, with their opposition too disorganized to take advantage of the situation. The group is trying to change that by targeting members in otherwise-safe seats who face credible primary opponents.
“Long-term incumbents tend to have advantages—name recognitions, relationships with media and party elders. They have relationships with the traditional PACs. We’re here to equalize that,” said Campaign for Primary Accountability spokesman Curtis Ellis. “All we want is competitive elections. We believe every member of Congress should face the voters in elections to keep them accountable.”
With just three state’s congressional primaries complete (Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi) as of Tuesday evening, the anti-incumbent group has already claimed its first scalp: GOP Rep. Jean Schmidt, who was fairly unpopular throughout her tenure but had been able to skate by thanks to the difficulty of mounting a successful primary campaign. She tallied only 62 percent in the 2010 primary, 58 percent in 2008, and 48 percent in 2006, but outspent her opposition each time. This year, the group evened the score by pouring about $100,000 into mailers and radio ads on behalf of her little-known opponent, Republican Brad Wenstrup.
Wenstrup’s upset victory proved the maxim that a little money goes a long way. The super PAC’s investment, portraying Schmidt as ethically corrupt, allowed Wenstrup to wage a much more even fight. Leading into Tuesday’s GOP primaries in Alabama, the group also spent big bucks against House Financial Services Committee Chairman Spencer Bachus, under fire for alleged insider trading, and Rep. Jo Bonner, who faced a tea party-aligned challenger. Both won Tuesday night, but were held under 60 percent of the vote.
Schmidt is on the leading edge of a phenomenon—and incumbents who have been resting on their laurels have a lot to worry about. The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman deemed the new election rules a “reign of terror” about to engulf Capitol Hill, suggesting that more members could lose in primaries this year than in the general election. Redistricting is playing only a partial role: Of the 51 members rated as facing credible primary challenges, 27 are unaffected by redistricting.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the 2010 election was that it wasn’t really an anti-incumbent year because only four sitting members lost primaries—and because nearly everyone who lost in the general election was a Democrat. But that’s only one chapter. The hidden story is that many incumbents, many of whom were victorious, tallied record-low primary percentages—and very well may have been defeated if their opponents were better-organized and better-funded.
A close look at the last election’s primary results reveals an eye-popping 20 members finishing with a very weak 60 percent or less in their primaries—a historically high number, considering most faced only nominal opposition. Even though 16 prevailed, many could have lost their seats if an outside group had funded their opposition.
The parties’ growing ideological polarization is also fueling primary turmoil. The antitax Club for Growth exerts disproportionate influence in primaries for this very reason—its members’ deep pockets are serving as the fuel animating an already volatile Republican electorate looking to nominate the most-conservative candidates possible. The group has caused great consternation with its policy of targeting a select few incumbents it deems too moderate. Imagine that strategy on steroids, against a wider array of members.
For much of the last two decades, good-government types strained to come up with ways to increase competition in elections. Many lamented that gerrymandering essentially protected members for life. Some reformers backed term-limit measures that were an animating theme of many 1994 Republican revolutionaries. The biggest cause célèbre has been campaign finance reform—limiting the money going into elections—as the tonic to cure all campaign evils. On this score, the reformers got it backwards.
“More money means more competition. And that’s why these incumbents are scared,” Ellis said.
This article appears in the March 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.