Incumbents Everywhere!

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Charlie Cook’s email newsletter today has some staggering facts about Congress and the incumbency advantage on election day:

The incredible amount of money funneled into House contests, redistricting processes that have created more safe seats and voters’ hardened partisan loyalties all play a role in protecting incumbents at a level that has not been seen before. ..

In addition, there aren’t that many incumbents who sit in the so-called wrong district. For example, in the 1992 election, 103 congressional districts split their tickets between the presidential nominee of one party and a congressional nominee of the other. In 2004, there were only 59 ticket-splitting districts.

The sheer volume of campaign cash flowing into a handful of House races also helps to protect incumbents like never before. The average competitive House contest costs at least $3 million. Add independent spending and money from outside groups and that number swells to more like $5 million.

Ten years ago or so, incumbents who polled at less than 50 percent for their re-election number were considered to be in imminent danger. Today, that danger line has slipped to closer to 45 percent or less.

Awesome. So it looks like the Congress we have is the Congress we’ll get now and forever. And even if they do a terrible job—garnering a 45 percent approval rating—that’s not enough to convince people to toss the bums out. So what is to be done? Redistricting reform would be a start, ending the ruthless gerrymandering that keeps incumbents safe. So would campaign finance reform. Then there’s term limits, although here in California, we’ve certainly seen the danger of term limits: what tends to happen is that a bunch of experienced lobbyists go up against constantly inexperienced representatives, and the lobbyists rule the roost.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

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It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

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We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

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Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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