The Power of Incumbency

Member Group : Democracy Raising PA

Democracy Rising Pennsylvania

The Power of Incumbency

Yesterday’s election demonstrated once again the effect of incumbency on the choices voters have in elections. All results are from the state’s Bureau of Commissions, Elections & Legislation with 99% of the vote counted. Click here.
PA House:

There are 203 seats up for election this year, 17 open seats and 186 seats where incumbents are seeking re-election.

• Percent of open seats with contests in at least one party: 94% (16 of 17)
• Percent of incumbents with primary opponents: 10.7% (20 of 186)
• Percent of incumbents re-elected: 99.5% (185 of 186)

PA Senate:

There are 25 seats up for election this year, three open seats and 22 seats where incumbents are seeking re-election.

• Percent of open seats with contests in at least one party: 67% (2 of 3)
• Percent of incumbents with primary opponents: 9% (2 of 22)
• Percent of incumbents re-elected: 100% (2 of 2)

Apart from the famous defeat of Democratic U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, the only other incumbent to lose was Rep. Karen Beyer, R-Northampton, who was upset by Justin Simmons. Simmons, running on an integrity agenda, signed DR’s petition for a referendum on a Constitution convention.

Incumbency suppresses competition and the debate of ideas that elections are supposed to be. That’s by design. Incumbents decide how the system works, and they can’t resist stacking the deck in their own favor.

They use the authority of their (really our) offices to raise intimidating amounts of campaign money. When the legislature is in session, the $500-per-person breakfast fundraiser is routine. And those are the cheap ones. It’s the rare challenger from back home who can hope to compete. Under PA law, there is no limit to the size of campaign contributions and few restrictions on how that money can be used. Incumbents who term-limit themselves and have huge stashes of cash can perpetuate political monopolies by funding their successors’ campaigns.

Gerrymandering, legal obstacles to third-party and independent candidates, a public platform provided by taxpayers, and legal obstacles to easy and secure voter participation all favor incumbents, deprive citizens of choices and weaken representative democracy.

Where’s the Majority?

Normally we think of election winners as getting 50% plus one of the votes. Then there are these winners and the percentage of votes they received because there were more than two candidates in the race:

Governor, D – 45.1%, Dan Onorato

Lt. Governor, D – Too close to call, but the winner will have less than 40% of the vote. The leader is Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, who also signed DR’s petition.

Lt. Governor, R – 26.3%, Jim Cawley

Senate Districts:
22nd – 22.0%, John Blake (D)

House Districts:

20th – 40.5%, Adam Ravenstahl (D)
85th – 44.9%, Fred Keller (R)
103rd – 46.9%, Ron Buxton (D)*
107th – 37.4%, George Zalar (D)
108th – 47.3%, Lynda Schlegel-Culver (R)
112th – 39.4%, Ken Smith (D)*
122nd – 33%, Justin Laich (D)
141st – 46.8%, Kevin Glasson (R)
190th – 47.2% Vanessa Brown (D)*
194th – 32.7%, Pamela Delissio (D)
199th – 29.2%, Stephen Bloom (R)
* Incumbent

In some other states, such results would bring about a run-off election, but not here. In PA, the ability of candidates to win without a majority has allowed incumbents to divide the opposition when two or more other candidates oppose them in the primary.

• Percent of incumbents with multiple opponents who won: 100% (8 of 8)

A Wing But Not a Prayer

Both major parties had contests that pitted candidates who were on the wings of the political spectrum. Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, campaigned for lieutenant governor from the right wing against a crowded field of eight other Republicans. Joe Hoeffel, a Montgomery County commissioner, campaigned for governor from the left wing against a field of four.

Both will put a good face on their defeats, but few gave them a prayer of winning, and they didn’t. Ironically, both got the same percentage of their party’s votes: 12.7%.

Perhaps voters have defined the strength of the wings in both parties. In both cases, yesterday was the wings’ best chance to fly because they provided real choices of political philosophy. In the general election, the contest will focus once again on the 75% of voters who aren’t buying either extreme.

• Can PA’s political center keep politics palatable for the wings? How?
• Can such small wings ever lift their parties?

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