We all live in the moment, and we often mistakenly believe that what is true today was true always. Not so in politics, and especially in Congressional elections.
Turnover in the modern U.S. House of Representatives is minimal. Redistricting and the advantages of incumbency help to insure it. Take a look at the last couple of midterm elections for proof.
In 1998, President Clinton's sixth-year election, just 33 House members out of 435 stepped down from their posts--many to seek another elected office such as a Senate seat or a Governorship. A mere seven U.S. Representatives lost their House seats through defeat, one in a primary and the other six in the general election. The overall reelection rate for House members seeking another term was 98 percent.
In 2002, President Bush's first midterm election, just 35 House members retired--almost a carbon copy of 1998. But wait, what's this? Sixteen House members were beaten for reelection, eight in primaries and eight in the general election. It looks like an outbreak of competition, except for two factors: (1) 2002 was the first election after the 2001 Census-driven redistricting, and some incumbents were drawn into the same districts--so a few incumbents had to lose. (2) The reelection rate for House members plummeted from the 98 percent of 1998 all the way down to...96 percent. So it was still very safe for incumbents to come out and play.
What about in the Senate? It's true that these high-profile contests can result in greater turnover, yet the reelection rates are still sky-high. Only five incumbents retired in each of 1998 and 2002, with three incumbents losing in 1998 and four going down to defeat (one in a primary) in 2002. Therefore, the reelection rate for U.S. Senators in 1998 was 89 percent and in 2002 was 86 percent. Senators were not as safe as House members, but the odds favored them by a wide margin.
Do these numbers tell us anything about the current 2006 cycle? Every year is different, of course, and there's no question that Republicans have a much tougher year in 2006 than they did in 2002, when President Bush was exceptionally popular, or even 1998, when GOP fortunes took a nosedive because of a backlash to the Republican-led impeachment of President Clinton. Quite a few GOP incumbents are nervous or even running scared in 2006 in the dreaded sixth-year itch election, with President Bush's polls at an all-time low (Iraq, Katrina, gas prices, etc.) and the corruption issue possibly taking hold in some states and districts.
Larry Sabato is the founder and director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics as well as author of Divided States of America: The Slash and Burn Politics of the 2004 Presidential Election.
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