Defeating an incumbent
There are very few things harder to do in American politics than beating an incumbent officeholder. More than 94% of Congressional incumbents win re-election, which is a re-election rate rivaling the Soviet Politburo.
However, each year a few high-profile incumbents lose federal or state offices. We’re proud to have “flipped” seats ourselves in each of the past five years.
If you’re looking to take on an incumbent, here are some questions to ask yourself before running for office.
Has there been a scandal?
The first and most obvious way to beat an incumbent is if they had a scandal. Obviously, some scandals are so big that it results in the incumbent going to jail and not running, however, most scandals are somewhat common. Then it’s up to you and your campaign to communicate these effectively to the voters to convince them to fire the incumbent and hire you.
Has the district changed?
The next most common factor would be if the district and demographics have changed. Over time, demographics shift and particularly long-term incumbents often fail to recognize this trend. Combined with redistricting, 2022 represents a once-in-a decade opportunity to challenge incumbents on new turf.
Is the incumbent arrogant, have they lost touch, or have they broken a promise? All of these are important factors to defeating an incumbent.
Is the community organized against them? Having a fired-up base of angry people helps fuel challenger campaigns.
Some high-profile losers around the country lately include:
- U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL). The main factor in his loss was his opposition to abortion and women’s healthcare, putting him out-of-touch with an increasingly progressive electorate. He had weathered these storms before, but a well-organized and well-funded campaign was too much for him in 2020.
- U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (GA). The main factors in her loss were finding herself and her husband in the middle of a massive controversy regarding stock sales just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the American economy, an increasingly controversial incumbent President and a motivated Democratic base energized by the Stacey Abrams-led coalition. And we haven’t even mentioned her controversial comments about the Black Lives Matter movement. A moderate Atlanta businesswoman bizarrely decided to run like a Trump conservative – and lost.
- U.S. Rep. William Clay (MO). The main factor in his loss was a feeling that he wasn’t responsive enough to a new generation of Black activism, specifically the BLM movement. This race played out in the home of the modern anti-police brutality movement, Ferguson, Missouri, and his challenger Cori Bush was a community leader in the protests following Michael Brown’s death.
- U.S. Rep. Martha McSally (AZ). The main factor in her loss was that Arizona voters saw right through her. With degrees from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Harvard, and the distinction of being the first American woman to fly in combat, one would think she would be the ideal candidate to replace John McCain. She launched her political career as a pragmatic, security-focused moderate. She lost twice and then barely won to get into the House where she served as a compromising and moderate Republican. Then when Trump become President, she turned to base politics, attacking the press, accusing now Senator Sinema of treason, and attempted to give politicians Trumpian nicknames. The result? In 2018, she became the first Republican to lose a U.S. Senate race in Arizona since 1965. Then she was appointed to the other Senate seat, and lost again in 2020.
- U.S. Rep. Steve King (IA). The main factor with King’s loss was his ongoing support of white supremacy, which finally led GOP leadership to abandon him. His racist views about immigrants were well known and his conservative district had re-elected him for years. But when leadership had enough and threw him off his committees, that was enough for even his voters.
- U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (NY). Engel, who had served 31 years, was in a battle over race and generational shifts. Engel was seen as having lost touch with his district that had changed over time, becoming more progressive and diverse. In the wake of AOC’s election the year before in a neighboring district, progressive activists primed to take out another incumbent with a large, motivated volunteer base. Plus, his terrible hot mic moment at a press conference about civil unrest, saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Ouch.
It might be unclear at the time of a gaff or bad press or a scandal if it is a challenger’s main “Why Fire” the incumbent point. It is our job to help bring clarity to the process – no matter if you’re running against a 20-year incumbent or for an open seat.