The Anti-Incumbent Tide

Sen. Pat Roberts introduces a video about Bob Dole's long history in public service. 
National Journal
Scott Bland
Add to Briefcase
Scott Bland
Aug. 5, 2014, 7:45 a.m.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) is favored in today’s Kan­sas primary. His col­league Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der (R-TN) heads in­to Ten­ness­ee’s Thursday primary with re­nom­in­a­tion fairly cer­tain, too. But even though that may mean no in­cum­bent sen­at­or loses re­nom­in­a­tion this cycle, there’s still ample evid­ence that anti-in­cum­bent sen­ti­ment is as ser­i­ous and dan­ger­ous as ever for sit­ting sen­at­ors.

— The No. 1 goal of every cam­paign is to win, and in­cum­bent cam­paigns have every reas­on to be pleased with their re­cords this cycle. But the string of Ws shouldn’t be mis­taken for a fade in the anti-in­cum­bent sen­ti­ment that con­trib­uted to five sen­at­ors los­ing bids for re­nom­in­a­tion from 2006 through 2012.

— The fo­cus on wins and losses makes sense from the per­spect­ive of con­gres­sion­al out­comes, but it doesn’t do justice to the elect­or­al at­mo­sphere. Already, five in­cum­bent sen­at­ors this year have won their primar­ies with less than two-thirds of the vote, something that happened only 19 times (out of 227 primar­ies) in the nine pre­vi­ous elec­tion years from 1996 to 2012. Roberts, Al­ex­an­der, and Sen. Bri­an Schatz (D-HI) could bump that fig­ure up to eight by the end of this week. Sure, no one has lost. (Though Sen. Thad Co­chran (R-MS) was bailed out by Mis­sis­sippi’s run­off rules after fin­ish­ing second in the ini­tial primary.) But many in­cum­bents’ mar­gin for er­ror has shrunk con­sid­er­ably.

— And the close calls do have some ef­fect on con­gres­sion­al out­comes. Con­ser­vat­ives es­pe­cially have been watch­ing cer­tain sen­at­ors’ vot­ing re­cords move to­ward them in elec­tion years, fur­ther po­lar­iz­ing the parties from each oth­er, be­fore some­times mov­ing back again after a vic­tory. The same phe­nomen­on of more in­cum­bents win­ning their primar­ies with lower vote shares is evid­ent in the House, where mem­bers have to face their party bases every two years, with ob­vi­ous ef­fects. In oth­er words, don’t try to tell in­cum­bents there isn’t an anti-in­cum­bent feel­ing out there. They’re already play­ing de­fense against it.

Anti-in­cum­bency shouldn’t be ove­rhyped, giv­en how high reelec­tion rates con­tin­ue to be. But giv­en how much lower sen­at­ors’ mar­gin for er­ror seems to be drop­ping, that sen­ti­ment shouldn’t be un­der­sold, either.
— Scott Bland

What We're Following See More »
NRA Chief: Leftist Protesters Are Paid
2 days ago
Trump Still on Campaign Rhetoric
2 days ago
Trump Rails On Obamacare
2 days ago

After spending a few minutes re-litigating the Democratic primary, Donald Trump turned his focus to Obamacare. “I inherited a mess, believe me. We also inherited a failed healthcare law that threatens our medical system with absolute and total catastrophe” he said. “I’ve been watching and nobody says it, but Obamacare doesn’t work.” He finished, "so we're going to repeal and replace Obamacare."

Trump Goes After The Media
2 days ago

Donald Trump lobbed his first attack at the “dishonest media” about a minute into his speech, saying that the media would not appropriately cover the standing ovation that he received. “We are fighting the fake news,” he said, before doubling down on his previous claim that the press is “the enemy of the people." However, he made a distinction, saying that he doesn't think all media is the enemy, just the "fake news."

Report: Trump Asked FBI to Deny Russia Stories
2 days ago

"The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump's associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN. But a White House official said late Thursday that the request was only made after the FBI indicated to the White House it did not believe the reporting to be accurate."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.