Incumbents Losing at Higher Rate in State Races

Though incumbents continue to hold vast advantages over political newcomers, entrenched legislators in 2012 are losing primaries at a higher rate than they did in 2010, according to a Ballotpedia study.
by | July 30, 2012
Incumbent Wisconsin state Sen. Van Wanggaard lost a recall election in June. (Photo: AP/Mark Hertzberg)
 

By Jim Malewitz, Stateline Staff Writer

To the newbie go the spoils? When it comes to state elections, that’s rarely the case.

But in this year’s races for state legislature, incumbents are finding it tougher to keep their jobs, according to a study released Thursday (July 26) by Ballotpedia, a website that tracks state politics.

Though incumbents continue to hold vast advantages over political newcomers -- in fundraising, party support, name recognition, media coverage and a lack of primary challenges -- entrenched legislators in 2012 are losing primaries at a higher rate than they did in 2010, the study says.

In 2010, 8.38 percent of incumbents facing a primary challenger were defeated. So far this year, in about half as many races, 14.8 percent have lost.

“While the percentage of incumbents defeated in primaries in 2012 might seem low, the increase is nonetheless impressive,” writes Geoff Pallay, the study’s author. “This trend, should it hold throughout the 2012 election cycle, could signal a historic shift taking place in American elections, albeit it one that faces profound obstacles for it to re-orient the nature of these elections.”

Utah saw the most incumbent loses -- eight -- in 2012, according to Ballotpedia, while North Carolina and Texas both saw seven incumbents lose.

What’s causing this major shift? Redistricting, the once-per-decade redrawing of geo-political boundaries, may have played a role, according to the study. Forty states are using different maps this year than they were in 2010, and in several new districts, incumbents were pitted against each other, meaning that one of them had to lose.

That was the case in Colorado, for instance, where a Democrat-led redistricting process meant some incumbent Republicans had to fight among themselves for political survival. In some cases, Republican incumbents stepped aside to avoid primaries, the Associated Press reported in June.

Additionally, some anti-incumbent sentiment from 2010 may have carried into 2012, according to the study. “A possible explanation for the higher victory rate for challengers is that the higher win rate for challengers in the 2010 general elections triggered more aggressive challenges this cycle. Emboldened by the results of 2010, stronger candidates may have come forward to challenge incumbents in 2012,” Pallay wrote.

However, if a few New York Republicans lose primaries this September -- despite their incumbent status -- it’ll likely be for a different reason: votes in favor of same-sex marriage. That’s because the National Organization on Marriage, a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, says it will pledge at least $2 million toward the ouster of three senators who last year helped pass a law allowing same-sex couples to wed in New York. As NBC News has reported, Senator Jim Alesi, another Republican who supported the bill, has opted not to seek a ninth term in office, citing local backlash over his vote.

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