Whatever else it turns out to be, 2006 will not be remembered as the year of the incumbent. Even when incumbents face a political headwind, they possess advantages over challengers, such as securely gerrymandered districts, name recognition, legislative achievements and a reassuring air of stability. That is why incumbent losses are rare and a bit of a shock.
But this year, things are different. Georgia primary voters have already dumped Rep. Cynthia McKinney as the Democratic candidate and have instead chosen her challenger, Hank Johnson, as the likely next representative of the heavily Democratic 4th District.
In Connecticut, voters in the Democratic primary decided they wanted to trade in their senator, Joe Lieberman, for businessman Ned Lamont, punishing the incumbent mainly for his support of the Iraq war. Lieberman may retain his seat as an independent on Nov. 7 but he cannot look forward to reelection with the same assurance as he has in the past.
In Michigan, Rep. Joe Schwarz (R), a centrist freshman who won the 2004 primary because the conservative vote was split, was also unceremoniously cast aside by GOP voters this time round, losing to a candidate endorsed by the Club for Growth.
The incumbent anguish does not stop there. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) heads into the Sept. 12 primary fighting for his political life against a challenge from the right by Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey. If the evidence of their recent televised debate is a guide, he is not fighting very well. In trying to distance himself from President Bush, Chafee described his own record as “spotty” – a poorly chosen adjective — while saying, weakly, that the state needed a Republican senator because Bush has another two years in office.
In Maryland’s 4th District primary, also next Tuesday, Rep. Albert Wynn (D) is threatened by attorney Donna Edwards. Once again, the issue is Iraq. Unlike Lieberman, Wynn no longer supports the war, but he voted to authorize it four years ago and his challenger says this is unforgivable.
There is a connection between Lieberman, Schwarz, Chafee and Wynn; they are all under fire for being less extreme than their primary electors. On the Democratic side, that means not being sufficiently and consistently opposed to the war; among Republicans it means being insufficiently hawkish on fiscal issues.
The essence of the incumbents’ problem is a common one — primary voters demand more ideological purity than the mainstream — but the strength of grassroots party anger is stronger this year than in the recent past.
As for McKinney, of course, her ouster has less to do with the policy positions she takes than with her overbearing, outlandish and embarrassing misbehavior. Her loss must be counted as a net gain for Capitol Hill.