Incumbent politicians enjoy record reelection in an aging Congress

By Miro Hall-Jones | OpenSecrets

In the 2022 elections — for the first time in American history — each of the 28 incumbent U.S. senators seeking re-election came home with a win. Incumbent House members boasted a similar level of job security, retaining their seats in 94% of races. 

While the 2022 elections marked unprecedented success for congressional incumbents, the so-called incumbency bias is nothing new.

Members of Congress routinely enjoy more funding and electoral success than challengers, making it difficult for young newcomers to raise money and enter office.  

Reelection rates in the House have never dropped below 85%, and have recently stretched to highs of 98% in 2004 and 97% in 2016.

While the Senate is more susceptible to shifts in public opinion — reelection rates dropped as low as 50% in 1980 at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution — incumbent senators have retained their seats in 88% of races since 1990. 

Few things in life are as certain as an incumbent victory in the U.S. Congress. 

This phenomenon is in part perpetuated by the enormous financial advantage enjoyed by sitting lawmakers. Incumbents running in 2022 Senate races raised an average of $29.7 million each, a stark contrast to the average $2.1 million raised by their challengers. 

While total contributions are smaller in the House, the discrepancy is just as striking, with incumbent representatives raising on average $2.8 million in 2022. Challengers raised on average $308,000.

Big money translates to big wins, with the top spenders in the House winning on average 92% of races since 2000. While the trend is less strong in the Senate, it remains a clear indicator of the power of money in politics — Senate candidates with the most cash won their seats 81% of the time since 2000. 

Incumbents are considered a safe bet by donors aiming to invest in candidates who stand a chance of holding power in Washington. In a self-perpetuating cycle, donors give to incumbents because they believe they will win, and incumbents are more likely to win because they are backed by donors.

This cycle threatens to exacerbate incumbency bias. An OpenSecrets analysis found that contributions made to incumbent representatives have increased 4% more on average per cycle than they have for challengers since 2000. However, this pattern was less pronounced and reversed in the Senate, with contributions increasing 1% more on average for challengers than incumbents per cycle since 2000.

Contributions made by PACs account for a significant portion of incumbents’ financial upper hand. A whopping $397 million in PAC money — or 86% of total PAC contributions — went to incumbents in 2022, compared to the $25 million that went to challengers. PAC contributions to incumbents have also increased 2% per cycle since 2000 even when adjusted for inflation, while PAC contributions to challengers have decreased 2% per cycle.

Incumbents also receive more support from large donors than small donors. Since 1990, 71% of the contributions made to incumbents from individuals have come from donors who gave more than $200 per cycle. That figure is 63% for challengers.

Career politicians continue to drive up the cost of elections as they set increasingly unattainable benchmarks for campaign finance.

While Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Jon Ossoff (D-GA) defeated Republican incumbents to gain control of the Senate for Democrats in 2020, their victories came with a price tag of $149 million and $101 million, respectively.

In the House, a seat cost challengers about $2.9 million in 2022, a figure which has increased an average of 4% per cycle since 2000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

In open seat races, when there are no incumbents to reckon with, the cost of winning drops to an average of $11.5 million in the Senate, compared to an average of $21.5 million for a newcomer hoping to unseat an incumbent. In the House, that number is $1.8 million in open seat races versus $2.5 million in incumbent-challenger races.

Incumbency bias has proven a critical factor in the aging of Congress. Career politicians have a stark advantage over young and emerging leaders, who are faced with no option but to raise enormous sums to reach the halls of Congress. The average age of a senator at the beginning of the 118th Congress was 65, and 58 for House members. By comparison, the average age in the U.S. is 39.

The issue of an aging Congress has recently garnered national attention, as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is 83, announced her reelection bid. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is 81, froze twice on camera in only a matter of weeks following a fall in which he suffered a rib fracture and concussion. The late Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who recently died while in office at the age of 90, spent her final years battling calls for her resignation from Democrats who claimed she was unable to perform her senatorial duties.

A pro-term limit movement first emerged during the last decades of the twentieth century as a proposed solution to the effects of incumbency. The movement was helmed by Republicans frustrated that Democrats had controlled the House for four decades. But in 1994 — when the tides turned in favor of the GOP — talk of term limits quickly faded.

Calls for term limits, however, may be making a comeback. A University of Maryland study made headlines earlier this year when it reported that 83% of voters supported amending the U.S. Constitution to establish term limits. In a rare show of bipartisanship, the idea was supported by 86% of Republican voters and 80% of Democrat voters. 

An OpenSecrets analysis found that contributions to pro-term limit PACs have increased precipitously since 2018. Contributions reached an all-time high of $2.6 million in 2022, with the vast majority of these going to Term Limits Action, a super PAC that raised $2.5 million during the midterm cycle. Data from the 2024 election cycle will be an important indicator of whether the term limit movement is experiencing a sustained political resurgence and how the landscape of campaign finance could change as a result. 

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