The scenario for the midterm elections remains grim for Democrats, but they have two factors working in their favor. First, the pathetic state of the GOP and second, and more importantly, the advantages of incumbency. In American politics, it’s nearly impossible to lose a reelection race unless, to paraphrase an old line from former Louisiana politico Edwin Edwards, you’re caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. The main reasons for that are gerrymandered districts and the fundraising edge incumbents enjoy. “There are two parties now, the Ins and the Outs,” a congressional staffer told me. “The Ins can command huge sums of special interest money to finance their re-elections, whether it’s business money for the GOP or labor money for the Democrats.”
As to gerrymandering, the same staffer said: “Thanks to increased computer capability and experience in drawing boundary lines, state legislatures and campaign professionals have perfected the art. There’s a whole industry dedicated to drawing district lines so politicians can pick their own voters. If you raise the requisite money to communicate with them and hit them with four weeks of ads before the election, there’s not much a challenger can do. Victory is almost mechanical.”
But just how big of an edge does incumbency offer? Take a look at the numbers (provided to me by Fair Vote):
During the seven elections for the House between 1996 and 2008 – during which a collective 3,045 seats were contested – a grand total of 89 incumbents lost their bids for reelection. The average margin of victory in House races since 2000 is about forty percent.
In 2008, fifty-two candidates ran for a House seat unopposed, twice the number of highly competitive races where the margin of victory was five percent or less.
The number of incumbents defeated since 1994 has ranged from a low of six in both 1998 and 2000, to a high of twenty-two in 2006, the year Democrats made huge overall gains won back control of the House. A number of those who lost that latter year – all Republicans — were tainted by their relationship with Jack Abramoff.
Democrats have reaped the primary advantages of incumbency. Of incumbents who lost between 1996 and 2008, a mere twenty-one were Democrats. Nine of the losers were redistricted out of their seats and five were embroiled in scandals (like William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson of Louisiana).
So congratulations, Nancy Pelosi: You’ve headed one of the worst congresses in recent memory (except, in fairness, virtually every one that came before it) but if your colleagues listen to Edwin Edwards the results in November may not be quite as bleak as it looks now.