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Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. (Getty Images)

Incumbents Hope Otherwise, But Change Is Coming

May 28, 2010

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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

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If you're wondering how scary the anti-incumbent tide looks to incumbents, ask any U.S. senator on the ballot this year. But hurry, the species is endangered.

Popular unrest over joblessness and economic distress has dovetailed with doubts of all sorts about change and the future and the nature of life in these times. The national sense of unease is destabilizing politics in general. But nowhere is the lash of public anger stinging more than in the U.S. Senate.

It's the House of Representatives where two-year terms are supposed to keep everyone on their toes. And it's the governors who usually feel the heat first when the economy goes south and stays there.

But in recent years, the Senate has become at least as much of a home for upheaval. And this year, the focus on the Club of 100 has been especially intense.

Already in this cycle, nearly a dozen members of the Senate have declined to defend their seats. Several were appointees who were never expected to seek a term in their own right. But the rest were established incumbents who had served from two to five terms each and, in most cases, could make a plausible case for re-election.

In addition to these voluntary retirements, two incumbents seeking re-election were denied the nominations of their parties: Republican Robert Bennett in Utah and Republican turned Democrat Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania.

And the intraparty carnage may not be over.

Democrat Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas faces a runoff on June 8 that could keep her off the November ballot. And the venerable John McCain, the GOP nominee for president in 2008, is still battling to secure renomination for his Senate seat in Arizona.

Perhaps no other incumbents in either party wil lose their 2010 primaries, but more than a few are in jeopardy in November.

Most of the shakiest are from the majority.  We would expect this in a midterm year when one party controls both Congress and the White House. Yet it is striking to see the Senate majority leader running far below 50 percent in his home state polls in Nevada. Harry Reid, after four terms, may well be the single most vulnerable incumbent in the Senate.

And he's far from alone. Few saw real problems a year ago for Barbara Boxer, a three-term veteran in California, or for her classmates Patty Murray in Washington or Russell Feingold in Wisconsin.  Yet now all three races are regarded as potential pickups for the GOP.

A Lightning Rod For Anti-Democratic Feelings

Boxer's situation highlights the degree to which the Senate has become the prime target for those who oppose Democratic hegemony.  Although they have far less liberal views than their House counterparts on most issues, the Senate's denizens lack the protection afforded by gerrymandered districts.  

That is why Boxer can be considered at risk at the same time her 33 Democratic colleagues from California in the House are all considered good bets for re-election.

Most House incumbents can count on a safe November no matter what happens.  Most Senate incumbents no longer operate with such confidence.  Either they're in trouble in the primary, or they're worried about tacking to the center for November.

House members, by and large, have a far less complicated re-election calculus.  Their districts favor their party, by intent and design.  So their greatest fear lies in primary challenges, not in general elections.  This is true of both parties, but it is especially true of the more ideologically orthodox GOP.

Democrats are also scrambling to defend two appointees who entered the Senate replacing incumbents who moved to the Obama Cabinet. In Colorado, Michael Bennet is seeking the voters' imprimatur after succeeding Ken Salazar (now secretary of interior). In New York, it's Kirsten Gillibrand doing the same after replacing Hillary Clinton (secretary of state).

Newcomers Will Abound

But even if Bennet and Gillibrand prevail, they will still be among those getting elected for the first time. Combining them with the new senators who will take over for retirees, intraparty victims and November losers, it looks all but certain that most of the 36 Senate seats on the November ballot will go to someone who's not been elected to the Senate before.

The likelihood of that newby majority grows even larger when you consider that several Republican incumbents are not yet assured of November success, either. Republicans Richard Burr in North Carolina and David Vitter of Louisiana have different problems. Burr has never quite seemed to seal the deal on his seat in a state recently trending Democratic. And Vitter in Louisiana has to contend with the vestigial effects of being enmeshed in the "D.C. Madam" scandal in 2007.

Most observers now expect both Burr and Vitter to survive the year.  But a loss by a Republican incumbent would merely reinforce the impression that has already taken hold. The electorate of 2010 is more than disgruntled, it is disillusioned. It may be the most anti-incumbent since the bloodletting of 1994, when Democrats lost their majorities in the House and in the Senate.

That "change election" followed another in 1992, which had been primarily damaging to Republicans.  It turned out that an angry populace was prepared to scorch incumbents in both parties.

It Goes Back To '06

The current era of change dynamic got rolling in 2006 with dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq and the post-Katrina performance of government in general. It grew stronger in 2008 with Wall Street's mortgage meltdown and credit crunch, and the deepening unpopularity of then-President George W. Bush.

Those back-to-back cycles of victory, when nary a Democrat lost a race of importance, convinced the partisans of the left that their epoch had arrived. But it now appears that these "change elections" were about just that — change. They were far less an endorsement of any specific set of policies.

That was enough to elect Democrats in 2006 and 2008, and now it is driving swing voters the other way.  That clearly favors candidates of the right, particularly the populist right, whether they are challenging incumbent Republican candidates in a primary or incumbent Democrats in the fall.

The dominant energy in this cycle is again an outsider's energy, a dynamic that official Washington cannot control.  It must simply hunker down and survive.

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