Healthy Voter Rebellion

September 20, 1992

With the congressional primary elections season all but over, it is now apparent that 1993 should be a record year for newcomers in the House. There will also be a healthy turnover in the Senate.

In the House, a record 19 members lost their primary bids for renomination. Four more lost primaries in which they sought higher office. Nine more won nominations for higher office. Fifty-two representatives are retiring. Two died. And in five races yet to be determined, two incumbents are opposing each other in redrawn districts (a la Wayne Gilchrest and Tom McMillen in Maryland).

That adds up to 91. This is before a single general election ballot has been cast and counted. Experts on congressional politics estimate that approximately 50 incumbents in the House are vulnerable to November challenges. If anywhere near that many are defeated, it will set a modern record, surpassing the 118-member turnover after the 1948 election.

So far the Democrats have taken the brunt of the voters' assault on incumbents. Sixteen of them lost in primaries, compared to seven Republicans. But this does not necessarily mean Republicans will gain seats in the House in the general election. Many of the incumbents on the endangered species list are Republicans. If the GOP makes any gains in the House, they are likely to be small.

In the Senate, death, retirements and one primary loss assure there will be nine new members. Polls and other portents suggest there will be more, as several incumbents show signs of weakness. Democrats could gain seats in the Senate.

Party does not seem to be a factor in voters' minds. Nor even such specifics as check bouncing. Some representatives who abused the House bank have been defeated, but some have won. There is just a general spirit of anger at incumbents. We think that's healthy.

What isn't healthy is where that anger has turned to disgust with and rejection of the political process. Turnout has been quite low in many states. In a hotly contested, emotionally charged, highly publicized primary in New York last week, less than 30 percent of the Democratic voters cast a ballot.

What is healthy about an occasional voter rebellion against congressional incumbency is that it freshens the air and charges the atmosphere. The new members bring new energy and new perspectives to the institutions involved, and the old members who survive, with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God sensitivity, change their old ways that produced the voter discontent.

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