Anti-Incumbent Mood Still a Factor in U.S. Senate Race

February 15, 2010

For release Wednesday Feb. 17 and thereafter (678 words)

With Evan Bayh’s stunning decision not to seek reelection, Dan Coats has become the “incumbent” in the Senate race. And that’s why Republicans should avoid him like the plague.

2010 is looking to be the year of the non-incumbent. A February report by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found widespread dissatisfaction with Congress and noted that anti-incumbent sentiment was “as extensive as it has been in 16 years” of surveys.
Thirty-one percent of voters said they do not want to see their own representative reelected, much higher than the 23 percent average holding that view in 29 previous polls. “The only recent midterm campaigns when anti-incumbent sentiment equaled its current levels were in 2006 and 1994, which culminated in elections that changed the balance of power on Capitol Hill,” Pew said. The survey echoed one taken in the fall when 37 percent of those polled expressed a positive opinion of Congress, among the lowest in decades, and 52 percent an unfavorable view.
Coats is not technically an incumbent but fits the bill from the voter’s perspective. He served in the U.S. House from 1981 to 1988 and in the U.S. Senate from 1989 to 1999 when Bayh took over the seat. Coats chose to “term limit” himself rather than seek reelection. Most recently, he’s been working as a Washington lobbyist, which makes him the very thing voters are tired of: a D.C. insider.
If Republicans had no other candidate for the May primary, a Coats candidacy might make sense.  But there were already several in the contest, and a few others may be tempted to jump in by Friday’s noon filing deadline.
Among those previously announced: state Sen. Marlin Stutzman, R-Howe, and former Rep. John Hostettler, himself a victim of anti-incumbent sentiment in 2006 when he lost his Evansville-based House seat to Democrat Brad Ellsworth.
Stutzman, in the state legislature since 2001, has little name recognition and could credibly make an anti-incumbent pitch. A small businessman and farmer, he logged 10,000 miles across Indiana last summer talking to voters about what’s wrong in Washington.
The message resonates, which explains the growing popularity of the Tea Party movement that advocates smaller government and lower taxes and is trying to recruit its own candidates in some districts across the country.
While Tea Party people generally come from Republican ranks, non-partisan anti-incumbent efforts are gaining ground. David R. Remer, head of Vote Out Incumbents Democracy, has noted an increase in news media reporting of both anti-incumbent and anti-establishment efforts.
One success was Republican Scott Brown’s victory to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts. In Minnesota, anti-incumbent sentiment propelled talk show host Al Franken past incumbent Republican Norm Coleman last fall. Closer to home, who can forget Greg Ballard’s defeat of Indianapolis Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson in 2007, despite receiving no support from his own Republican Party?
In 2008, 94 percent of House incumbents and 83 percent of Senate incumbents seeking reelection won. The Center for Responsive Politics notes, “Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection.”
This is not what our Founding Fathers envisioned. They hoped to create a system in which citizens would take turns holding office, then go back home to their families and careers. As Bayh put it Monday, “Running for the sake of winning an election, just to remain in public office, is not good enough.”
It’s obvious why national Republicans might prefer Coats in the effort to win back the Senate. They figure he has the greatest name recognition and will be able to raise the most money. But it shouldn’t be about fame or fundraising; it should be about who’s the right person for a turn at public service. The Democrats, as they scramble to replace Bayh on the ballot, face the same concern.
Eventually, if enough incumbents are upset, both parties might get the message. But citizens first must take responsibility for two things: rejecting incumbents and getting more involved themselves.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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