Politically Thinking: State’s D.C. incumbents will roll

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch are overwhelming favorites to be re-elected next week. These two candidates may get more votes than anyone else listed on the ballot, including President Obama and Gov. Shumlin. Sanders could be the top vote-getter in Vermont, with about 70 percent of the vote, with Welch not far behind in the mid-60 percent range.
Strong incumbent performance is not a recent development in Vermont. U.S. senators used to be elected by state legislatures until the ratification of the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913. Since popular election of U.S. senators began in Vermont, no incumbent senator seeking re-election has ever been defeated at the polls.
Vermont had two U.S. House seats until the 1930 census, when the current at-large congressional district was established. In the 80 years since then, only two U.S. House members seeking re-election, both first-term members, have lost their re-election bids: Democrat William Meyer in 1960 and Republican Peter Smith in 1990.
More recently, members of Vermont’s congressional delegation have not just been winning re-election, but winning by large margins. One has to go back to 1994 to find an election when an incumbent U.S. Senator or U.S. House member from Vermont received less than 60 percent of the vote.
The only competitive elections for the congressional positions in recent years have involved open seats. In 2006, Bernie Sanders faced a competitive challenge from self-funded candidate Rich Tarrant when he ran for the Senate seat left open by Jim Jeffords’ retirement. Although Tarrant was competitive in fund-raising — he spent more than $7 million of his own money on his campaign — he was not competitive at the polls, with Sanders winning the seat with 65 percent of the vote. The only truly competitive congressional race in recent years was the Peter Welch-Martha Rainville contest for Sanders’ old House seat in 2006. Both candidates, and both national parties, spent heavily on this open-seat race, with Welch getting 53 percent of the vote.
Sanders and Welch have huge financial advantages over their opponents in this year’s election cycle. Sanders has over $7 million in his campaign fund, most of it in small contributions from all over the country, while Republican candidate John MacGovern is unlikely to raise much more than $100,000. Welch has raised over $1 million, while his Republican challenger, Mark Donka, might not even pass the $10,000 mark in fund-raising.
Sanders has, in effect, positioned himself as the U.S. senator for progressives all over the nation. His campaign has become very effective at using the Web and social media to raise $25, $50, and $100 contributions from progressive voters in nearly every state, often tying the fund-raising appeals to Senate floor debates in which Sanders has taken a prominent part. Sanders’ financial reports showed that he received contributions from more than 140,000 individuals all over the country. Many incumbent U.S. senators from states much larger than Vermont do not have as many individual contributors as Sanders.
The current members of Vermont’s congressional delegation are most unlikely to face any serious electoral challenges as long as they want to stay in office. At some point, however, one of them will decide to retire from Congress. At that time, I do expect a competitive election. The congressional Republican party has become too conservative in recent years for most of its candidates to be electable in northeastern states such as Vermont. This means that future competition for an open Vermont seat on Capitol Hill could well occur in the Democratic primary rather than in the general election.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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