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What you need to know for 08/17/2017

Incumbent politicians remain difficult to beat

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Incumbent politicians remain difficult to beat

People often complain about politicians. But few of them are ever voted out of office.
Incumbent politicians remain difficult to beat
Photographer: Patrick Dodson

People often complain about politicians.

But few of them are ever voted out of office.

A post-election analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group found that this election was no different: Most incumbents will retain their seats, with a handful of notable exceptions.

“It’s somewhat similar to what we’ve seen in the past,” said Bill Mahoney, NYPIRG’s research coordinator.

The NYPIRG analysis examines the number of incumbent state legislators defeated in the general election despite running on a major party line, providing figures for every general election dating back to 1982.

In general, the number of incumbents turned out of office is fairly small, ranging from zero in 1998 to a high of 11 in 2010 — a year that saw the Republicans retake the House of Representatives in dramatic fashion during the financial downturn.

NYPIRG projects that between three and six incumbents will be voted out this year, noting that state Sen. David Storobin, R-Brooklyn, Assembly members Robert Castelli, R-Goldens Bridge, and Don Miller, R-Clay, appear to have lost, while senators Steve Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, and Assembly members Dean Murray, R-East Patchogue, and John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, were in races that had not yet been called.

Over the past 30 years, New Yorkers have voted between 53 and 56 incumbents out of office, according to the NYPIRG analysis.

Incumbents have a number of built-in advantages, political experts said. They have more name recognition and a network of supporters and campaign staff, which helps them raise money. Zoe Oxley, chair of the political science department at Union College, said incumbents also know how to run a successful campaign, because they’ve done it before.

“They don’t have to create a campaign from scratch,” Oxley said. “Just being in office helps them get their name out there.”

Bob Turner, an assistant professor of government at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, agreed.

“Ninety percent of the time, incumbents are better known, better liked and better funded,” he said. “They’ve spent a minimum of two years traveling around the district. They have paid staff that make them look good, and they can send out paid mailings.” Most of the time, “they do not face a serious challenger.”

When political parties target an incumbent, it is because they believe they have a chance to win; Turner said that Democrat Bill Owens, who currently represents northern New York’s 23rd district and ran to represent the newly redistricted 21st district, often faces serious challenges because he represents a more conservative district. This year Owens fended off a strong challenge from Republican Matt Doheny.

Bet the favorite

“Most Congressional races look like a Harlem Globetrotters game,” Turner said. “Yes, there’s a game, but the outcome is not in doubt.” He said that New York actually appears to have more swing districts than many other states.

Turner said that there’s another reason incumbents tend to win year after year. “Most of them are doing a good job,” he said.

The NYPIRG analysis found that the “institutional longevity” of both houses of the New York state Legislature remains close to historic highs.

In 2013, the average previous experience of Assembly members will be about nine years; 29 Assembly members will have 20 or more years of experience. In 2013 the average previous experience of state senators will also be about nine years; between 10 and 11 senators will have 20 or more years of experience.

Being an incumbent wasn’t always such a big advantage.

In 1923, the average Assembly member had about two years of experience; no member had served 20 years or more, according to NYPIRG. The numbers in the Senate were comparable: The average senator had less than three years experience, and no member had served 20 years or more.

But things have changed.

Turner said that over the past century elected offices have become more professional. “People used to serve a couple of terms and leave,” he said. “They were more likely to get voted out.” In many places, parties ran at large, as a slate, and it wasn’t unusual for every member of a particular party to be voted out of office simultaneously and replaced by the opposition.

Career politicians

Oxley said that in recent decades fundraising has become a much bigger part of campaigns and elections.

“Elected officials tend to stick around longer these days, and treat politics more as a full-time job,” Mahoney said. He said that incumbents in New York tend to stay in office longer because they can draw their own district lines, use state funds to support their re-election effort and have very high campaign contribution limits.

“It’s important to realize how many ways incumbents can manipulate the process to make people see them as better than they are,” Mahoney said.

He noted that Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez, from Brooklyn, cruised to re-election, despite being at the center of a sexual harassment scandal. Ideally, incumbents would be “held more accountable for what they do,” he said.

One Capital Region incumbent who won’t be returning to office is Roy McDonald, who lost his bid to return to the state Senate in the Republican primary to Kathy Marchione. McDonald, who represented the 43rd District, was one of four Republicans in the state to vote in favor of legalizing gay marriage, and his loss was viewed as a consequence of that. Saland also bucked the party line by voting in favor of gay marriage.

The NYPIRG report notes that, “A few incumbents, such as Senator McDonald this year, have run on a third-party line in the general election. Their defeats were not included, since the heaviest factor in their losses was usually their primary elections, which have different dynamics than the generals.”

Oxley said that quality challengers are less likely to take on a strong incumbent, because it seldom makes financial sense to do so. As a result, primary challenges are likely to emerge when an incumbent is mired in scandal, or has done something unpopular in his or her district, such as McDonald’s vote for gay marriage. Scandals and unpopular stands don’t necessarily mean the incumbent will lose, “but it might encourage a better challenger to enter the race,” she said.

Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, easily beat Democratic challenger Julian Schreibman for the House of Representatives. Oxley said the Democratic party poured a lot of money into Schreibman’s race, and would likely reconsider investing so much money in that 19th Congressional District in the next election. “They might focus on a more vulnerable incumbent somewhere else,” he said.

Turner said that another factor that makes it difficult to defeat incumbents is an overall decline in split-ticket voting — voters are less likely to vote for candidates from both parties on the same ballot. “There’s more ideological purity,” he said.

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