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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

June 20: An Anti-Incumbency Factor After All?

Every time approval ratings for Congress (or for both major parties) take a dive, we hear talk of the next election cycle as portending an “anti-incumbency” wave. Then most incumbents are re-elected, with partisanship predictably being a bigger factor in who wins or loses than who has the dreaded (i) next to the name on the ballot.
But in looking back at the Cantor loss in VA-07, FiveThirtyEight’s David Wasserman notes that there has this year been an anti-incumbent effect in primaries, which led me to this commentary at Washington Monthly:

[T[he most interesting data Wasserman provides is in support of the argument that this cycle’s anti-incumbent sentiment is making primary upsets more likely, without necessarily creating any sort of tsunami:

Cantor was only the second House incumbent to lose a primary this year (the first was Texas Republican Ralph Hall), but the warning signs of discontent were abundant: Plenty of rank-and-file House incumbents had been receiving startlingly low primary vote shares against weak and under-funded opponents, including GOP Reps. Rodney Davis of Illinois, Lee Terry of Nebraska and David Joyce of Ohio. In fact, just a week before Cantor’s defeat and without much fanfare, socially moderate Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey received just 54 percent of the Republican primary vote against the same tea party-backed opponent he had taken 61 percent against in 2012.
Overall, 32 House incumbents have taken less than 75 percent of the vote in their primaries so far this year, up from 31 at this point in 2010 and just 12 at this point in 2006. What’s more, 27 of these 32 “underperforming” incumbents have been Republicans.
In other words, while Congress’s unpopularity alone can’t sink any given member in a primary, it has established a higher baseline of distrust that challengers can build on when incumbents are otherwise vulnerable. And as the sitting House Majority Leader, Cantor was uniquely susceptible to voters’ frustration with Congress as an institution.

That makes sense. The two underwhelming incumbent GOP performances that struck me earlier in the cycle involved North Carolina’s Renee Ellmers, who won 58% against an underfunded anti-immigration-reform crusader, and Nebraska’s Lee Terry, who did even worse (52%) against a similar opponent.
Now some eager Democrats may look at this phenomenon and predict some general election upsets, and that’s possible. But there’s no real evidence yet that anti-incumbency is trumping partisanship among 2014 voters. And obviously, Democrats have a lot more incumbents being targeted in the key fight for control of the Senate.

To put it another way, there are three levels of “anti-status-quo” feeling that might have an effect in November: anti-the-party-controlling-the-White-House, anti-the-party-controlling-the-House-or-Senate, and anti-my-own-congressman. While the third is likely to be the weakest, it could have an effect on the margins.

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