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Incumbents still have advantage

– Utah Republicans gave GOP Sen. Bob Bennett the boot after 18 years in Congress. West Virginia Democrats showed Rep. Alan Mollohan the door despite his 28 years in office.

Those decisions last week – one in a nominating convention, the other in a primary – were 1,600 miles apart and involved wildly different dynamics. But some political observers have seized on the defeats of those incumbents as prophetic.

There may, indeed, be an anti-incumbent mood in the country. But, if so, that attitude either isn’t very pervasive or it isn’t translated to ballot-box action by people who actually vote.

In the eight primaries and nominating conventions held to date, 107 incumbents have been on the ballot; 105 won renomination.

Was it anger that did in the two incumbents who have lost so far? Mollohan has dodged ethics allegations for years; maybe they finally caught up with him. It’s easier to make the case that frustration over Bennett’s votes (he supported the financial bailout and has been an enthusiastic pursuer of earmarks for his state) was a factor in the nominating convention.

If that is the case, we’re down to one incumbent out of 107 who took an electoral tumble so far this year because people are mad at Washington.

I’m not disputing there is anger and angst in the atmosphere. But it’s more precise to describe it, as the astute political observer Charlie Cook does, as anti-everything.

Incumbents may suffer as a result, but the facts – so far – do not support that voters will cast a robotic “anybody but X” vote.

I think you can read primary voter response in one of two ways: They are lazy and just vote for the name they have heard of. Or they have weighed the incumbent against the opponent(s) and are sufficiently satisfied with the officeholder.

Of course, beating an incumbent is really, really hard. Rhodes Cook, a master of electoral data, notes that since 1990, only 52 House and Senate incumbents have lost primary elections. Accounting for retirements and decisions to run for another office, that’s a 99 percent re-election rate.

The bottom line is that incumbency is very powerful as an institution. But it is also powerful in the sense that a smart, responsible lawmaker will not deviate too drastically from the view of the bulk of the voters. And when he or she takes a controversial vote, a thorough explanation will be forthcoming.

To beat an incumbent, an opponent has to run a good campaign and maybe catch a couple of breaks. Mollohan’s challenger was a state legislator who was well known in the district, and he capitalized on Mollohan’s ethical cloud.

In Indiana, Reps. Mark Souder and Dan Burton were helped by having multiple opponents. There’s no way to know what would have happened in a one-on-one race, but it’s certainly safe to say that Souder and Burton would have received some percentage of the votes that were cast for other candidates.

What I mean is that not all the votes cast for Phil Troyer and Greg Dickman would have gone to Bob Thomas if it had been a Souder-Thomas race. Even if Thomas had gotten three-fourths of the votes cast for Troyer and Dickman combined, he still would have lost to Souder by more than 3,800 votes.

There are still plenty of primaries yet to go in the country, and I may yet be proven wrong about the potency of anti-incumbency. But I think voters are more sophisticated than to evaluate any candidate on one thing, even when they are basically mad at everyone and everything.

By year’s end, there will be incumbents who are sent packing – maybe several dozen. Those incumbents who lose primaries and in November will have some baggage: a scandal, loss of attention to the district, a slew of votes that can’t be explained to the satisfaction of the voters. But they will also have an opponent who can exploit those vulnerabilities in a credible way.

Sylvia A. Smith has worked at The Journal Gazette since 1973 and has covered Washington since 1989. She is the only Washington-based reporter who exclusively covers northeast Indiana. Her e-mail address is sylviasmith@jg.net. Her phone number is 202-879-6710.

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