Complaining about Congress is almost a pastime in the United States, yet incumbents nearly always win re-election when they run. Congressional incumbents have several advantages and disadvantages when running for election, however, the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages as incumbents are very successful in running for re-election. Overall, it seems that the high rate of re-election for Congressional incumbents is a good thing.
Over 90% of incumbents running for re-election are re-elected (347). Obviously there are many advantages to running as an incumbent. Several of these advantages stem from their name recognition and experience as a politician. Often, incumbents win re-election because their state is so dominated by one party, there is no competition. For example on average only one in six house seats is competitive enough for the non-incumbent party to win the seat (347).
Congressional incumbents also have more resources available to them to run campaigns. Members of the House of Representatives are given a yearly budget of nearly $800,000 and eighteen staffers to do anything that is needed (348). Senators receive a budget of two to four million dollars and thirty to fifty staffers, depending on the size of the state (348). With such large budgets and staffs available to them, incumbents are intrinsically able to run a more active campaign than almost every non-incumbent challenger.
Incumbents also have huge advantages when it comes to raising money. It takes roughly 1 million dollars to win a House campaign today. Incumbents generally raise $1.5 million for their political campaigns, while non-incumbents on average raise only $500,000 (349). Incumbents are able to raise more money because they have already established a long list of potential campaign contributors (349). Highly influential political action committees (PACs) also generally support incumbents, 85% of all PAC contributions go to incumbent campaigns (350).
While the advantages are certainly are compelling, there are also some disadvantages for incumbents running for re-election, most of these disadvantages stem from the national political environment of the time, or because of the incumbents individual actions.
Incumbents are at risk of getting caught into the national political mood. In the elections of 2006, President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq was extremely unpopular, and that spilled into the congressional elections as an unusually large number or republican incumbents lost their re-election bids (352). Similarly, in 2010, many citizens were not in favor of President Barack Obama’s economic policies, and in the 2010 elections an unusually large number of democratic incumbents lost their re-election bids (352).
The close scrutiny incumbents are subject to means personal misconduct may torpedo a re-election bid as well. Over 25% of incumbents who has lost their seat were marred by scandals shortly before losing their re-election (352). For example, William Jefferson was a nine-term Representative from Louisiana. After it was uncovered that he tried to take bribes in return for votes, he lost his next re-election campaign (352).
Finally, sometimes, the non-incumbent challenger is simply a formidable opponent. Incumbents who are seen as “sell-outs” might have a tough primary opponent. Richard Luger, a six-term Republican Senator lost to a Republican primary opponent. Luger was seen as a moderate Republican, and his constituents voted for a much more conservative primary opponent (353).
Other times, the incumbent may face a strong general election challenger from the other party. This is particularly true in the Senate. Due to the prestige of the Senate, an incumbent senator may often face a governor, other high ranking state official, or even an independently wealthy individual in the general election (353). Marcia Cantwell, who made her fortune in business spent over $20 million of her own money in order to beat an incumbent Senator (353).
The high re-election of incumbency rate is a good thing for democracy. The primary goal of members of Congress should be to competently and accurately represent their constituents. Incumbents who are elected often must be doing a good enough job of fulfilling this goal. Also, the longer a person is in Congress the more influence in and knowledge of they gain of Congress, this allows them to better represent their constituents. These factors outweigh the disadvantages of high re-election rates because if a member of Congress no longer represents their constituents, they can always be voted out. The power is always ultimately up to the constituents to decide if an incumbent should continue to represent them, and to me, that makes all the differences. Voters deserve the type of representation they vote for.
Patterson, Thomas. “We the People.” New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print