Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Don’t Hold Your Breath for an Anti-Incumbent Election

By Stuart Rothenberg

Voters are angry, especially at Washington, D.C., and with politicians. They are unhappy with both parties. All that is generally true.

But voters’ dissatisfaction with those in charge doesn’t mean that November is likely to be an “anti-incumbent election.” In fact, it almost certainly won’t. We never, or almost never, have true anti-incumbent elections, as I have noted before.

If Republican incumbents have problems, it will be in their primaries.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry looked to have enough momentum to pull away from his GOP primary opponent, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. But that hasn’t happened. The Senator hasn’t been a scintillating candidate, but she is still very much in the game against the governor, according to knowledgeable insiders.

Perry won re-election four years ago with only 39 percent of the vote in a four-way race. While conservatives have rallied behind him, there are many in the Republican Party who don’t like his smugness and his shoot-from-the-hip style.

Arizona’s GOP governor, Jan Brewer, who became the state’s top officeholder when her predecessor joined the Obama administration, faces a roomful of primary challengers in her bid for a full term, and her prospects are uncertain. She inherited a terrible budget situation and was forced to select from a number of unappealing choices.

Indiana Rep. Dan Burton, South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis and Utah Sen. Bob Bennett also face challenges that have developed to a stage that make them worth watching.

Nonincumbent Republicans who have the mantle of the establishment are also vulnerable given the current environment.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running for the state’s GOP Senate nomination, is the most obvious example. He faces a very difficult fight against former state Speaker Marco Rubio (R), who is running as the insurgent despite his previous position.

The same dynamic is taking place in New Hampshire, where conservative Ovide Lamontagne and two businessmen could give former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte a migraine in the Republican Senate primary.

And in Kentucky, Rand Paul, son of Texas GOP Rep. Ron Paul (a former presidential candidate), is running as an outsider for the Republican Senate nomination against Secretary of State Trey Grayson, the favorite of virtually the entire state and the national Republican Party. GOP insiders think Grayson can win the primary, but they are far from certain about the outcome.

But if those incumbents (and establishment-backed nonincumbents) get past their primaries, they will then benefit from the public mood, which currently looks likely to punish Democrats at the ballot box.

A rash of recent polling, much of it paid for by liberal Web sites Daily Kos and Firedoglake, show Democratic incumbents in horrible shape — about where Republicans were in 2006 and 2008.

Surveys over the past couple of weeks have shown former Rep. Mike Sodrel (R) ahead of Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) by 8 points, Andy Harris (R) leading Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) by 13 points, former Rep. Tim Walberg (R) leading Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Mich.) by 10 points and former Rep. Steve Chabot (R) leading Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) by a whopping 17 points.

In addition, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) leads unknown challenger Randy Altschuler (R) by only 2 points, while controversial Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is drawing 55 percent in an early ballot test against state Sen. Tarryl Clark (D).

Even if only most of these results are close to being accurate, they suggest that other Democratic House incumbents are seeing significant erosion in their numbers from what those same numbers were even a year ago.

Over in the Senate, Democratic numbers are equally terrible.

Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid are sitting with unfavorable ratings larger than their favorable ratings. Former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who would be crushed if this year’s political environment resembled that of the 2006 or 2008 cycle, is running even or ahead of his potential Democratic opponents, and Democratic prospects over the past year have deteriorated in Ohio and Missouri.

Polling in North Carolina is particularly instructive. Recent surveys continue to show roughly equal numbers of respondents approving and disapproving of the job Sen. Richard Burr (R) is doing. But even with those mediocre numbers, Burr is holding clear (if unintimidating) leads over his potential general election opponents.

The bottom line on all of this seems pretty clear: Voters are not enamored of incumbents of either party, and GOP incumbents or “establishment” candidates facing strong “outsider” primary opponents could be in for more rough sledding than they would normally need to expect.

But when the general election rolls around, unless there is a significant change in the national mood, voter dissatisfaction will be aimed overwhelmingly at the candidates of one party. And that is why Democratic insiders are privately raising their own estimates of party losses.

This column first appeared in Roll Call and on CQPolitics.com on January 25, 2010. 2010 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.