So much for the power of incumbency

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

Amid the spin spewing from the parties over what this month's elections in New Jersey, Virginia and New York meant, there is one indisputable lesson learned: Voters don't like incumbents these days.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) was thrown out by voters, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) was nearly defeated despite outspending his opponent by 20 to 1.

Although the candidacy of Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman fell short in the special election in Upstate New York's 23rd Congressional District, his rapid rise was based mainly on anti-Washington, throw-the-bums-out messaging.

Virginia's governor's race did not include an incumbent, but voters roundly rejected the party of President Obama and outgoing officeholder Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

In Pew Research Center's polling, just over half of Americans said they would like to see their members of Congress reelected next fall. Only 34 percent said they want most incumbents to be reelected in the midterms.

Pew describes those numbers as among the most negative in two decades of collecting data. They approach levels found in the run-ups to the 1994 and 2006 midterms -- elections in which there were significant seat changes in the House and Senate. In October 2006, 55 percent said they wanted to see their lawmakers reelected and 37 percent favored the reelection of most members of Congress; in October 1994, 49 percent favored the reelection of their own lawmakers and 29 percent backed reelection of Capitol Hill incumbents in general.

Even more troubling for incumbents is that independent voters are more down on their elected officials than partisans of either stripe. Only a quarter of independents want to see congressional incumbents reelected next year, while 42 percent support their own lawmakers in the midterms.

What's clear from this and other national polling as well as a variety of state data is that there is a widespread belief that politicians are not acting in the best interests of those they represent. This sentiment isn't terribly new, but the depth of these anti-incumbent feelings -- particularly among political independents -- makes it newsworthy.

While it's likely that any sustained sentiment of this sort will hurt Democrats more than Republicans, this sort of political environment is decidedly unpredictable and could lead to surprising defeats for presumed safe incumbents -- of both parties -- next November.

D for defeat?

Two Quinnipiac University polls released late last week in Ohio and Connecticut provided sobering news for Senate Democrats.

In Connecticut, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D), whose numbers experienced a resurgence over the summer, trailed former congressman Rob Simmons (R) by double digits.

Even against such virtual unknowns as former World Wrestling Entertainment chief executive Linda McMahon, state Sen. Sam Caliguri and former ambassador Tom Foley, Dodd is in a statistical dead heat.

Need more evidence? Just 40 percent approve of the job Dodd is doing in Congress, and just 39 percent say he deserves reelection. Not good. At all.

The data in Ohio was less daunting for Democrats but still dispiriting. Republican former congressman Rob Portman polled 39 percent support compared with 36 percent for Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher (D), a significant reversal from a September survey, in which the Democrat led by double digits.

Since neither Portman nor Fisher is particularly well known, the turnaround is attributable almost entirely to a general decline in the Democratic brand, as shown by the majorities who disapprove of how Obama is handling the economy and health care.

Gov. Ted Strickland is also feeling the effects, having slipped into a dead heat with former congressman John Kasich (R).

Connecticut and Ohio are among the five states most likely to switch parties next year. Here are all five:

5. Ohio (Republican-controlled): Portman is the class of this field -- an able, attractive candidate with star power. But, he has direct ties to the unpopular economic and trade policies of the Bush administration (he served as U.S. trade representative and as head of the Office of Management and Budget) that Democrats are planning to exploit. Fisher is vulnerable to a primary challenge from Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, but repeated fundraising failures suggest she doesn't have the tools to put together a candidacy.

4. New Hampshire (R): The recently announced candidacies of Republican businessmen Bill Binnie and Ovide Lamontagne complicate former state attorney general Kelly Ayotte's march to the nomination. Binnie is likely to position himself to Ayotte's left, while Lamontagne is sure to cast himself as the only real conservative in the field. Rep. Paul Hodes, meanwhile, has a free run at the Democratic nod.

3. Nevada (Democratic-controlled): The current anti-incumbent climate has to worry Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has built a career on his insider smarts. Reid's early television ads echo the sort of spots Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ran in 2008; they are transactional -- designed to show voters what Reid gets for the state and what him not being in the Senate would mean. Reid's greatest advantage, however, may be the quality (or lack thereof) of his Republican opponents.

2. Delaware (D): State Attorney General Beau Biden (D) continues to play coy about whether he will run for his father's old seat and, if so, when he'll announce those plans. Assuming Biden gets in soon, it will set up a terrific race against Rep. Mike Castle (R), whose long record of electoral successes in the First State make him a formidable opponent.

1. Connecticut (D): When Dodd's numbers tanked this spring, his allies insisted that there was still plenty of time for him to set things right with voters. And, over the intervening months, he seemed to get his feet under him -- and his poll numbers improved as well. That's why the Quinnipiac numbers are so troubling for Dodd -- they not only show a significant regression for the incumbent, but they also come less than a year before the vote. Expect increased pressure from party leaders for Dodd to step aside.


One day: "Going Rogue," former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's memoir of the 2008 presidential campaign, is officially released.

20 days: Palin stops in Sioux City, Iowa, to sign copies of her book. Fix rule: Politicians never go to Iowa by accident.

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