Before you read this editorial, take a look at the stories on the House and Senate November races. Nothing will change in January. The balance of power in the House will stay strongly in Democratic hands. The GOP will continue to hold the Senate. The rule of physics: bodies at rest tend to stay at rest is in legislative terms: elected officials tend to stay elected.
Incumbency seems to be the biggest predictor of success at the ballot box. In past elections, we calculated the chances of reelection at 91%. This year, the chances of re-election were even better. The percentage of incumbents went up this year. Two years ago, there were 65 unopposed House legislators. This year there were 70 unopposed legislators in the House.
None of the open seats are the results of voter outrage or misconduct on the part of the representative. With the exception of the tragic death of Rep. Larry Belcher, those who didn’t come back moved on to greener pastures. (We have not forgotten Rep. Dedman who lost in the May primary.)
Incumbents enjoy advantages in name recognition, fundraising, access to expert campaign advice, both from veterans in their own caucus and professional campaign experts hired by their parties. Incumbents can use free media to stay in touch with constituents throughout their terms. News stories back home about the session creates opportunities for interviews with the “hometown boy/girl” in the capital city. Getting quoted in the Hometown Paper generate positive voter feelings.
High profile legislators, like Speaker Richards, Senate President Williams, Rep. Greg Stumbo and budget guru Harry Moberly, get attention from statewide media which increases their visibility and their standing with the voters.
The goal among legislators is not a weak opponent, but no opponent at all. Even first term legislators from last session were able to fend off any opposition. Three new legislators, Will Coursey (D-6th), Sanny Overly (D 72nd) and Alecia Webb-Edgington (R 63rd) won their first races in 2006 and ran unopposed this time around. The "conventional wisdom" is the easiest time to beat a politician is after his/her first term. The longer they serve, the safer the seat.
That is not to say that it cannot happen. Veteran legislators have been toppled by newcomers on occasion. In the recent past, Steve Nunn, son of a former governor, lost his seat in the House after years of service. Legislators have lost because while they gained power in Frankfort, they lost touch with the folks back home. Personal scandal sometimes brings down an incumbent.
Legislators have consciously insulated themselves from opposition by moving the filing deadline to the end of January, before the General Assembly settles down to work on difficult issues. Once lawmakers are comfortable they won’t be opposed or their opposition is not going to be a threat, they can turn their full attention to the business of Frankfort. The goal seems to be not to move the state forward, but to keep the representative in one place.
When there is a filing against them, legislators know before they start casting crucial votes. They avoid casting votes the folks back home might not understand. There is less enthusiasm for casting procedural votes to get a bill out of committee if it can be spun into support for the subject matter.
The question has to be asked is while incumbency set in concrete is good for legislators, is it good for the Commonwealth? So far, citizens have voted that it is. A great majority do not follow the making of laws until it directly affects them and by the time they are affected, the General Assembly is meeting and activism during the session isn’t sustained all the way to the ballot box.
The chances of 100% success for incumbents seem to defy probability. But this election cycle, incumbents beat the odds. There are some excellent lawmakers that should be returned to Frankfort. There are others who should have to answer to voters for the work they do – or in some cases, don’t do.
The Commonwealth is at the top of lists of many things bad – illiteracy, obesity, diabetes, smoking, pollution, etc. and at the bottom of the list of many things good – per capita income, job development, creativity, educational attainment. Our hopes are for our children and grandchildren to stay in Kentucky and enjoy a comfortable, productive, healthy lifestyle. In some areas of the state, that hope becomes dimmer every passing day.
The status quo is not working. We are slipping farther the rest of the nation. Re-electing the same representatives over and over again, no matter what party they belong to, is not going to move us any closer to our neighbors.
It’s time we Kentuckians began thinking of the unthinkable. The two dirtiest words one can utter within earshot of a politician.