SPOTLIGHT

The Anti-Incumbent Tide

Sen. Pat Roberts introduces a video about Bob Dole's long history in public service. 
National Journal
Scott Bland
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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

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