According to a recent study* by Ballotpedia, 97.3 percent of state legislators seeking reelection have advanced to the general election. This turnover rate isn’t unique. In fact, it’s in line with the percentage of incumbents advancing from the primary to the general elections in 2018 (97 percent) and 2016 (97.5 percent).
The caricature of the embedded career politician is a well-worn trope. So a history of high reelection rates are unlikely to be a surprise. But in recent years, the increased demand for campaign finance reform to address the power imbalance between incumbents and their challengers has found traction in states across the nation. So it may be surprising to discover that the overwhelming majority of state lawmakers seeking reelection continue to succeed in spite of attempts at campaign finance reform.
Incumbents have built-in advantages over challengers. First, they enjoy name recognition from previous elections and political appearances while in office. Second, they have the ability to remind voters of the benefits or “favors” they have enacted while in government. Third, they have a financial edge. They are able to tap in to networks of special interests which often give money to incumbents in order to “grease the wheels” for lobbying.
Challengers, on the other hand, rarely receive money from special interests because they are expected to lose — a self-fulfilling prophecy, so to speak. In general, people and money tend to follow winners, and the man or woman who has won once is likely to do it again.
While many state legislatures (as well as Congress) have notoriously low approval ratings — only 35 percent approval for state legislatures according to one study — voters keep rehiring their own representatives.
Newcomers to the political system already face many barriers to entry. While calls for campaign finance reform from citizens may be well-intentioned, they are written by incumbents. Is it any surprise, then, that these reform measures tend to benefit incumbents? Many campaign finance proposals — including the federal For the People Act passed by the U.S. House in 2019 and many proposed state-level regulations — add burdensome disclosure requirements to political ads and political speech.
For example, a bill proposed in the Nebraska state legislature, LB 210, if enacted, would regulate many forms of speech, apparently including books, websites, text messages, and e-mails. This bill and others like it would impact individuals and small organizations in particular.
Political discourse on social media is included in many of these so-called reforms. To date, social media has been relied on as an effective and economical way for a political newcomer to get heard. Incumbent politicians, on the other hand, often get free airtime on traditional media outlets when called upon to discuss current issues. Making it more difficult to post ads or other political conversation discourages both the potential candidate and his or her supporters.
Limiting the sources or amounts of campaign contributions also helps incumbents. While money alone doesn’t guarantee success at the ballot box, newcomers often need a somewhat hefty budget to get attention and to build name ID. Proposals to limit the amounts an individual or group can donate, to eliminate donations from corporate PACs, or to mandate government-funded campaigns benefit those already in office. Campaign contribution limits effectively allow incumbent politicians to decide how much money their challengers are allowed to receive.
Giving the government more control over who can challenge them or how their opponents can speak out — both literally and with their money — tends to benefit the people who are already in power.
Interested in seeing the races where a challenger was still able to advance to the general election, despite the inherent advantages of the incumbent? Here’s a list of the state legislators who have lost their primary contests in the states covered by Transparency USA, along with the campaign finance details of that race.
Subscribe to the states you care about to track the money as we head toward November’s General Election. We’ll let you know when the latest reports become available and bring you the highlights from state-level campaign finance.
*This study included the 33 states that held state legislative primaries before August 10, 2020.