A few short months ago the media was filled with narratives about 2010 being the “Year of the Insurgent,” a storyline that was always overblown. That’s not because the public is happy with congress, but because a well-funded incumbent is awfully hard to knock off. Even in 2006, when Democrats made huge gains in the House, 94 percent of incumbents won reelection. That’s not to say incumbents aren’t going to lose a few races (and it looks like the Democrats will drop quite a few seats this fall), just that it generally takes extraordinary circumstances, given the corrupted rules of American politics, for challengers to win a significant number of races in any given year.
Furthermore, America is a big place. Winning or losing state and local races depends on different issues in different places; there may not be a One-Size-Fits-All explanation for results around the country.
So it’s been amusing to see the media backing away from the “Year of the Incumbent” narrative, without ever acknowledging that it created this bogus thread to begin with. A classic example came in a Washington Post story today by Dan Balz. Writing about John McCain’s crushing victory over J.D. Hayworth in Arizona, he wrote, “On a day of coast-to-coast primaries that tested the power of the establishment against the appeal of political outsiders, McCain demonstrated anew that some incumbents who receive advance warning may be able to fend off challenges.”
Point One: For the purposes of hewing to its original storyline, the media has been portraying Hayworth as an outsider who was challenging establishment candidate McCain. But Hayworth was no outsider; he is a former member of Congress who lost his seat in 2006 largely due to his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. (He’s also dumb as a rock, which didn’t help his cause.)
Point Two: Don’t all incumbents receive “advance warning” that they will have a challenger on the ballot? Of course this caveat from Balz was inserted in order to explain why incumbents keep winning races despite the fact that he and others in the media were so recently predicting a wave of victories by “insurgents.”
Balz’s story in the dead tree version of the Post was written before results started trickling in from Alaska, where Senator Lisa Murkowski and Sarah Palin-backed candidate Joe Miller are running neck and neck. Murkowski had been expected to win, as noted by Balz in his story. Had she triumphed, Balz would no doubt have seen it as evidence to support his bold theory that incumbents with “advance warning” can fend off challengers. Imagine, though, if the results from Alaska had come in before the results in Arizona. Balz no doubt would have written a story saying that Miller’s unexpected showing demonstrated that “The Year of the Insurgent is alive and well.”
But now what will be the new storyline, since the “establishment” won in Arizona and the “insurgent” won (or did far better than predicted anyway) in Alaska?
Coming soon, from Dan Balz: “The results tonight demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that insurgents may, possibly, run strong this fall, especially if they have the endorsement of Sarah Palin, and even more so if the race happens to be in Alaska. However, there is no question that establishment candidates may, under some circumstances, triumph this fall, especially if their challengers tell them they plan to run against them. This trend may be heightened if the establishment candidate was his party’s presidential nominee two years ago and if his opponent is a cretinous buffoon.”