U.S. House Members Who Simply Cannot Be Unseated without Personal Scandal
Very few U.S. House races are truly competitive, and 2006 is sure to continue this pattern even in the midst of a potential swing toward Democrats of more than 20 seats and the first change in partisan control of the House since the 1994 elections. Just how non-competitive are our elections? In each of the past four congressional elections, from 1998-2004, more than 98% of incumbents have won, and more than 90% of all races have been won by margins of over 10%. In 2002, only four incumbents were defeated by non-incumbent challengers in the general election: the fewest in history.
Our report Dubious Democracy 2005 provided a comprehensive assessment of the level of competition and accuracy of representation in U.S. House elections in all 50 states from 1982 to 2004. It ranked each state on a “democracy index” based on average margin of victory, difference in points between seats and votes, how many voters elect winning candidates and number of House races won by overwhelming landslides. Some highlighted national facts include:
• Sky-high incumbency rates: Only five incumbents lost to challengers in 2004 – the second lowest number in our nation’s history, just behind 2002. Nearly nine in ten incumbents were re-elected by “landslide” margins of at least 20 percent.
• Landslides: In 14 states in 2004, every race was won by a landslide margin of at least 20 percent. Only four states (all with fewer than three seats) recorded no landslide wins.
• High victory margins: The average victory margin was a whopping 40 percent. Seven of every eight (83%) U.S. House races were won by landslide margins of at least 20 percent in 2004. Only 23 races (5%) were won by competitive margins of less than 10 percent.
• Apathy: Nearly one out of every 11 voters skipped over their House race on the ballot. Despite a surge in turnout due to the presidential race, more than 62 percent of eligible voters – nearly two in three – did not vote for a winning House representative.
Additionally, the report included alarming statistics from nearly every state in the “facts in focus” section. Here are just a few “lowlights:”
• Florida: Incumbents won 139 of 140 House races in Florida from 1992-2004. Of 25 House races in 2004, 24 (96%) were won by landslide victory margins of at least 20%.
• Massachusetts: Of the state’s 30 House races from 2000-2004, 16 were completely uncontested. Six more were won by at least 40%, and eight were won by at least 20% landslides. The state’s 65% overall margin of victory in House races was the nation’s largest; seven incumbents have won their last four races by landslides.
• Arizona: Voters adopted a redistricting reform proposal in 2000 that established a commission to draw district lines, yet competition actually decreased in the state elections from 2002-2004. Fifteen of 16 U.S. House races in these two elections were won by landslide margins of at least 20%, including four races by more than 40%.
• California: 51 of the 53 House races held in 2004 were won by landslide margins that exceeded 20%. Of the 101 incumbents who ran for re-election in 2002 and 2004, all were re-elected, and 99 of these 101 incumbents won by landslides.
Given the dramatic re-election success of incumbents, incumbency could be seen as the overriding factor for determining electoral outcomes. From 1998 to 2004, of 1,594 incumbents seeking re-election, only 27 (1.7%) lost. Almost all of these defeated incumbents had one of three things in common: lack of seniority; representing a district that tilted toward the other party; or being targeted in redistricting, which indeed was responsible for more than half of the 15 incumbent defeats that took place in House elections in 2002 and 2004.
Incumbency certainly helps, but one reason incumbents win is they usually represent districts that match their partisanship. Take the Republican freshman class of 1994. Of the 34 Republicans who defeated Democratic incumbents, eight were defeated from 1996-2000. Most of those eight losers represented districts that would clearly favor Democrats in an open race. None of the victorious 1994 challengers in the more safely Republican districts were defeated. Clearly the most entrenched incumbents are very settled in districts that would be safe for any candidate from their party.
The following link will bring you to a list of incumbents whom FairVote labels “untouchable”: they have won by landslide margins of at least 20% in both 2002 and 2004 and represent a district that tilts 5% or more in their party’s favor.