More Americans approve of polygamy than of Congress. A February CBS News/New York Times poll found just 10 percent of respondents approved of Congress’s job performance. A recent poll from the same source found 11 percent of respondents thought polygamy “morally acceptable.” Other polls have found that the “U.S. going communist” has 11 percent support—meaning that concept has more fans than Congress has.
But here’s the paradox: While the approval rating for Congress has hit an all-time low, well over 90 percent of incumbent House members routinely win re-election. Even in the Tea Party election of 2010, 86 percent of House incumbents were returned to office. How can this be? It’s because the game is rigged in favor of incumbents, with more than four out of five congressional districts a lock for one party or another. Incumbent gerrymandering and enormous campaign contributions from Washington lobbyists make it nearly impossible to dislodge members short of major scandal. The general elections in which they cruise to victory time and time again are really fake fights, like the ones in pro wrestling.
A new group called the Campaign for Primary Accountability (CFPA) plans to shake up this stagnant system. Its key insight is that incumbents who are ethically challenged, lazy, or ideologically mismatched to their district can be beaten—but in party primaries. And it has already had some impact on this year’s elections.
“The way to regain control of Washington is to regain control of Congress,” says Curtis Ellis, the group’s spokesman. “Only 10 percent of voters normally participate in primaries, so if you can increase turnout for a credible challenger, you can either beat them or send them a message they can’t take voters for granted. All we want is competitive elections.”
The group—one of those independent “super PACS” inspired by the unshackling of campaign finance in Citizens United—is funded by a collection of wealthy backers and small donors who feel frozen out of politics now and say underdog challengers deserve a chance to compete. One target of the group—15-term incumbent Democrat Marcy Kaptur of Ohio—airily tried to dismiss CFPA’s donors as a bunch of “anarchists from Texas.” She was apparently referring to Leo Linbeck III, a 50-year-old Texas developer who is CFPA’s biggest donor. But the Houston Chronicle, a pillar of the Texas establishment, notes Linbeck's father has been a mainstream player in areas such as the Fair Tax and opposition to Obamacare. It highlighted how donors like Linbeck III are “using their wealth to undermine, rather than support, a political system where gerrymandering and uncontested incumbency seem to matter more than actual votes.”
So far the group is punching way above its weight. Its threatened entry into the GOP primary in Indiana’s 6th district (north of Indianapolis) prompted 30-year-incumbent Dan Burton to retire earlier this year. In Ohio, Republican Jean Schmidt saw her primary total fall to 43 percent from a towering 62 percent in 2010. She lost by six points to Brad Wenstrup, an Iraq War surgeon who had never held elected office but had a beef with the incumbent over her votes to bail out Wall Street and raise the debt ceiling. CFPA alerted voters to her record by spending $240,000 on mailers and radio ads.
A week after its Ohio victory, CFPA fell short in its efforts to knock off House Financial Services Committee Chairman Spencer Bachus, the subject of a federal probe into alleged insider trading, and House Ethics Committee Chairman Jo Bonner. But both men won only 57 percent of the vote, and were forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to overwhelm their Tea Party challengers. In the Illinois primary a week later, the group failed to derail Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. from winning his Democratic primary, but played a role in the defeat of 20-year-incumbent Republican Don Manzullo.
“Incumbents who have been resting on their laurels have a lot to worry about,” says the National Journal. “In 2010, an eye-popping 20 members finished with a very weak 60 percent or less in their primaries. Even though 16 prevailed, many could have lost their seats if an outside group had funded their opposition.”
CFPA plans to be that outside force. In deciding what districts to play in, it looks at four factors:
- The district must be solidly Democratic or Republican (“We’re not looking to swing power from one party to the other,” Linbeck says).
- The challenger must be credible and capable of standing on his or her own.
- The current incumbent must be a long-time office-holder.
- CFPA’s own private polling has to show there’s actually a chance its candidate could win.
The district surrounding El Paso, Texas, is a test case for the kind of race CFPA prefers. Democrat Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso city councilman, wants to knock off Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a former Border Patrol agent who has held the district for 16 years. The 39-year-old O’Rourke blasts Reyes for sloppy constituent service work and notes that two of the six bills Reyes has passed have been to rename buildings. O’Rourke also wants to rethink the Drug War and has written a book making the case for marijuana legalization. It’s possible that El Paso Democrats are comfortable with the status-quo representation given them by Reyes, but at least O’Rourke provides a real debate over alternatives. In 2010, Reyes had no primary opposition and rolled over his hapless GOP challenger by outspending him $1 million to $7,000.
The approach taken by CFPA—and similar groups, such as the Club for Growth—is an intriguing one. For decades, the standard line of reformers when confronted with complaints about lack of political competition has been to tout limits on campaign spending—McCain-Feingold campaign finance “reform” is their idea of a solution. But it hasn’t worked. Incumbents are more entrenched than ever.
Maybe more money in politics is the answer. More money means more competition, and in the races that CFPA has chosen to enter, it’s the only thing that has gotten the incumbents scared. Incumbency may never be the same again.