The Anti-Incumbent Nonsense

It’s not anti-Incumbent. It’s anti-Obama:

The idea that anti-incumbent fever, striking equally at Democrats and Republicans, is the defining feature of the 2010 election is as misguided as last year’s notion that President Obama’s oratory would tilt the nation in favor of his ambitious agenda. Yet the media, echoing the Obama White House, has adopted anti-incumbency as the all-purpose explanation of this year’s political developments.

Their latest (supposed) evidence: Mr. Sestak’s ouster of incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter. But incumbency, though it played a part, wasn’t the main reason Mr. Specter (who switched parties from Republican to Democrat last year) lost. After voting against the 80-year-old Mr. Specter in five elections dating back to 1980, a majority of Democratic voters in Pennsylvania couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him yesterday. They didn’t trust him.

Mr. Sestak, a House member since 2006, played on this sentiment. He was the “real” Democrat, Mr. Sestak insisted, while Mr. Specter was an imposter. Recognizing that Mr. Specter might be vulnerable, the White House leaned on Mr. Sestak to stay out of the primary. Mr. Sestak stubbornly refused.

Nor was Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas forced into a runoff with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter yesterday because she’s an incumbent. A bigger problem for her was a reputation as an unreliable vote for Democratic initiatives—Mr. Halter attacked her from the left—and polls consistently showed her badly trailing any Republican opponent.

It’s true that anti-incumbency was marginally responsible for the defeats recently of three-term Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah and 14-term Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia. Voters do at times get tired of elected officials. But Mr. Bennett lost chiefly because he was seen as having “gone Washington” and too eager to compromise with Democrats. Mr. Mollohan was defeated by a conservative opponent more in tune with the state’s drift to the right over the past decade.

What demolishes the notion of anti-incumbency as a scourge on both parties are the calculations of credible political analysts—Democrats and Republicans from Charles Cook to Jay Cost to Nathan Silver to James Carville—about the outcome of November’s general election. They believe dozens of congressional Democrats either trail Republican challengers or face toss-up races, while fewer than a handful of Republicans are in serious re-election trouble.

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