By Austin Sekel
Watching results roll in on election night used to bring surprise and intrigue, as no one could predict which candidates were going to win. But now, thanks to the power of incumbency in Congress, a huge portion of races are decided in advance. Political pundits don’t have to bother discussing every race going on because few are competitive.
Of the 121 congressional primary elections held earlier this week, 48 of them didn’t really happen. You read that right; around 40 percent of the primary elections never even took place because entrenched candidates — mostly incumbents — won their primary election simply by filing to run for office. This is the unfortunate reality of a legislature built without term limits.
Only three of the forty-eight races in Alabama, California, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota that were uncontested were open seats.
When potential candidates sit down to evaluate the odds of winning a congressional election, they first come to an understanding that their best chance of success depends not so much on their platform but whether or not there’s an incumbent in office. That’s because incumbents win over 90 percent of the time.
Name recognition is important but incumbents all have one secret weapon in common: big money. In 2016, on average U.S. House incumbents raised $1.5 million for reelection compared with $233,000 raised from challengers. In the Senate, incumbents on average raise $12.7 million compared with $1.5 million from challengers according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It’s no secret that once in office, incumbents cozy up to lobbyists and special interests because they know that in order to retain their status they need to fill their campaign coffers to fend off potential threats.
Congress has become nothing short of a toll booth.
Looking at the June 5th elections alone, a whopping 62.5 percent of primaries were uncontested in New Mexico. Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota didn’t fare much better with 50 percent of races being uncontested. California had the fewest uncontested elections with slightly less than 25 percent; perhaps this is directly correlated to their jungle primary system, which elevates the top two finishers regardless of party.
We all scoff at how ridiculous leaders in countries like Russia and Venezuela seem when they win elections on average with 70-plus percent of the vote but in New Jersey for example it’s actually even worse. Every U.S. House incumbent in New Jersey that did face a primary challenger yesterday won with over 75 percent of the vote and the winner by the biggest margin nationwide was Donald Payne Jr. who took home a demoralizing 92 percent. So far this entire election cycle, only one incumbent has lost at the ballot box. The June 6th results show that again, no incumbents lost, although one has the potential to lose in an upcoming runoff election after failing to receive over 50 percent of the vote in their primary, Martha Roby in Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District.
All in all, another eight candidates that signed our pledge for congressional term limits won their primary on June 5th: Mo Brooks, Gary Palmer, Rod Blum, Chris Peters, Greg Gianforte, Matt Rosendale, Yvette Herrell and Tim Bjorkman! We need more candidates like them who are willing to take a stand because ultimately their word and dedication is what’s bringing us one step closer to starting over in Washington.
It’s past time for Congress or the states to establish a constitutional amendment for congressional term limits. With over 80 percent support from everyone on the political spectrum, term limits would create regular, competitive open-seat elections where candidates could run on a level playing field instead of automatically having the chips stacked against them. After all, it’s hard to even consider them elections when they don’t even take place.
Austin Sekel is a Staff member here at U.S. Term Limits, follow him on Twitter.