Manitowoc Herald Times
Is it ’Äòelection’Äô or
’Äòre-election’Äô day? Incumbents rarely lose
By Brian Tumulty
Generally speaking, the eight members of Wisconsin’Äôs House
delegation each have a 98.5 percent chance of winning in Tuesday’Äôs
That’Äôs the percentage of incumbents
re-elected to the House in 1998 and 2000.
But the outcome in Rep.
Tom Petri’Äôs race is a 100 percent certainty. The Fond du Lac
Republican is running unopposed for a 13th term.
haven’Äôt endorsed Petri, he said, ’ÄúThey don’Äôt speak as poorly of me
as they do as some other Republicans.’Äù
Petri is using his campaign
as an opportunity to spend extra time in the new parts of his
congressional district in Dodge and Sheboygan counties.
results of the most recent three elections, longtime incumbents
elected before 1990 ’Äî like Reps. David Obey, D-Wausau, and James
Sensenbrenner, R-Menominee Falls ’Äî have a 99.9 percent chance of
Among the 1,150 incumbents in House races since 1996, only
one of the 33 incumbents who lost was a longtime member.
Democratic Rep. Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut, a 20-year incumbent
who lost in 2000 to a decorated Vietnam veteran amid several
campaign controversies. Obey, ranking Democrat on the House
Appropriations Committee, is seeking his 18th term in the House.
Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is running
for his 13th.
’ÄúI put my entire record on the line every two years,’Äù
Sensenbrenner said. ’ÄúThe reward for that is re-election. I think the
re-elect rate shows that people are satisfied with incumbents.’Äù
Even junior members, like Rep. Mark Green, R-Green Bay; Paul Ryan,
R-Janesville; and Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, rarely lose. All three
are seeking a third term.
Green’Äôs first congressional race in 1998
was a rare case where an incumbent stumbled and lost ’Äî freshman
Democrat Jay Johnson.
Challengers have it tough
Dick Kaiser, a
retired school teacher and record shop owner who is the Green Party
candidate seeking to unseat Green in the 8th Congressional District,
described the advantage of incumbency as ’Äúobscene.’Äù
taught from the fourth grade we live in the world’Äôs greatest
democracy,’Äù said Kaiser. ’ÄúBut because of the influence of money, a
lot of political speech is muffled and then quickly discredited by
major media.’Äù He complained that some newspapers and other media
outlets haven’Äôt given his candidacy any attention, even though he is
officially on Tuesday’Äôs ballot.
’ÄúWhat we’Äôre essentially saying is
this is a locked-up system and there’Äôs no way to get through the
door,’Äù said Kaiser, who described himself as a reform populist and
not a left winger.
Andrew Becker, a 27-year-old hypnotist who also
is running in the 8th Congressional District, noted that the
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hasn’Äôt given his
campaign any money ’Äî even a couple of thousand dollars to mail out a
fund-raising letter. Although he is a major party candidate, Becker
has raised about $3,500 to Green’Äôs $769,408.
’ÄúI think most of the
congressmen who get re-elected get re-elected because they are doing
a good job,’Äù Becker said. ’ÄúBut you need a system that allows someone
else to have a shot. The reason a candidate may not be viable is
because he has no money.’Äù
Green was not available for comment, but
his congressional chief of staff, Mark Graul, pointed out: ’ÄúIt’Äôs
important to remember that four years ago he was in the same
position that Dick Kaiser and Andrew Becker are today. So it can be
In 1998 Green received significant financial help from
national Republican groups, which made the freshman Democrat Johnson
one of their top national targets.
Obey, who has represented the 7th Congressional District since
1969, said voters tend to stick with elected officials who have
proven themselves over time.
’ÄúWhat do people do when people buy a
product and like it?’Äù Obey asked. ’ÄúThey usually keep buying it
again. And I don’Äôt think politics is any different. If you like a
certain brand of bread or certain brand of jam, you may stick to it.
If people get to know you and like you, they stick with you.’Äù
said he has had tough races many times, although he’Äôs been able to
capture about 60 percent of the vote in the past several elections.
’ÄúI think you wind up with an opponent who may not be the toughest
in the world because people recognize if you have a good reputation
and if you’Äôve done your homework, it’Äôs going to be hard to beat
you,’Äù he said.
Joseph Rothbauer, the Republican challenger seeking
to unseat Obey, acknowledged the incumbent has a tremendous
’ÄúThe name recognition is tough. And when you have money
like the incumbents do, they keep hammering that,’Äù Rothbauer said.
’ÄúWe’Äôve come to a point where we have a political ruling class.’Äù
nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy estimates only five to
eight of the 390 House incumbents seeking re-election Tuesday will
lose. And four of them will be in races where two incumbents are
facing off against each other in a redrawn district.
So where are
the other competitive races? Forty-nine of the 435 House races
involve an open seat where the incumbent is retiring, seeking
another office or has died.
Campaign donations and advertising tend
to flow to about two dozen most competitive races ’Äî especially with
control of the House at stake. Democrats need to pick six seats to
gain a 218-seat majority as well as protect three vacant seats