This is going to be an anti-incumbent election year. Right?
That’s the conventional wisdom. Nationally, the tea party movement puts on display what a host of opinion polls say: The public is weary of Washington’s hard-left policies, independent voters are fast fleeing the Democrats, and enthusiasm is high among Republican and conservative voters.
Typically, that kind of mix leads to big gains for the opposition. Political handicapper Charlie Cook’s latest list describes a whopping (all gerrymandering considered) 99 U.S. House seats as potentially in play; 62 of them, including 57 seats now held by Democrats, are tabbed as truly competitive. (The GOP needs a net gain of 40 seats to reclaim a majority.)
Georgia of late has bucked the national leftward drift, putting and keeping Republicans in power since 2002. But now they, too, have to face the anti-incumbent sentiment. What will that mean in 2010?
The number of new entrants and departing incumbents offers a signal about the level of turnover we can expect. If so, things could get interesting this fall. But only mildly so.
Qualifying for Republican and Democratic primaries is over, and an atypical number of lawmakers aren’t seeking re-election. The Legislature will have at least 41 fresh faces among its 236 members (180 in the House, 56 in the Senate).
Forty-one, or 17 percent, may not seem like a very high figure, but it’s progress: Just 26 legislators gave up their seats in 2006 and only 16 in 2008. The last time voluntary attrition under the Gold Dome was this high was in 2004, when redistricting meant that some incumbents were not-so-voluntarily pitted against one another.
Curiously, in a supposed anti-incumbent year, most of the departing are not retiring but seeking higher office. We may recycle more than we replace.
Still, there are more primary challenges this year than in 2008 or 2006, more seats sought by both Democrats and Republicans (as well as any third parties), more races in which the winner will have won both a primary and a general election. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that a frustrating 114 seats still have but one contestant. Two of them aren’t even incumbents, meaning they will affect state policy without being vetted by voters.
And part of the reason for this situation, I believe, goes back to national politics.
An amazing 57 Georgians are running for our state’s 13 congressional seats as Republicans or Democrats this year — almost double the number just four years ago. That total includes 11 incumbents, six state lawmakers trying to move up, and 40 others.
Now, I’m all for newcomers running for office, and I’d be happy to see some of them win a place in Congress. But at the same time, only so many of them have a real shot at winning. And I have to think that we’d be better off if many of those 40 “others” had run instead for the Legislature — and cut down on the number running unopposed.
Georgia’s problems are also numerous. They aren’t going away. There’s too much stale thinking at the Capitol, on both sides of the aisle. New voices would be welcome.
Now, a word for the tea partiers:
Your national focus is understandable and laudable. The sweeping changes sought by President Barack Obama and the Democrats have in part nationalized statewide elections, as we saw in Scott Brown’s U.S. Senate win in Massachusetts.
But Washington is not the only place that merits your attention and passion. Or your candidacy for office.
It’s too late this year for anything but an independent run, which is probably a long shot. But Tea Party 2.0 must include a greater emphasis on state and local policies and elections if the movement is to make it in the long term.