Political Outlook: Guaranteed Change

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Even before the 2010 election is actually held, the face of American politics is guaranteed to look vastly different at the beginning of 2011.  When the new Congress takes office, even if no other incumbent loses during the rest of this election cycle, we already know that more than 10 percent of the House of Representatives will be comprised of freshmen or members having less than one year congressional experience, as will 12 percent of the new Senate.  Perhaps even more significant, at least half of the nation’s governors will be new next year, or will have just one year of tenure when adding New Jersey and Virginia to the equation (Govs. Chris Christie (NJ) and Bob McDonnell (VA), as you will remember, were elected in November of 2009). 


Already a dozen U.S. Senators are either retiring at the end of this year or, in the cases of Utah Senator Bob Bennett and Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, were denied a chance at renomination.  This number represents a full third of the 2010 in-cycle seats (12 of 36 being contested) and will probably soar higher once the election results are finally tabulated.


In the House, already 42 Representatives are either retiring, running for higher office, or have been defeated for renomination.  Six more have won special elections since the 2008 vote, meaning a minimum of 48 members will begin the 112th Congress with less than two years of federal legislative experience.  That figure will only remain constant if all House members seeking re-election in the fall are successful, a premise that today appears dubious at best. 


Perhaps the greatest influx of new political blood will be seen in the nation’s state houses.  Thirty-seven states host gubernatorial elections later this year and 23, mostly due to individual term limit laws, are open seats.  When adding New Jersey’s Christie and Virginia’s McDonnell to the mix, a minimum of 25 Governors will have less than one year of experience when the new legislative sessions begin in 2011.  This represents fully half of the United States, and that’s only a minimum. 


The number remains at this level if all 14 incumbents seeking re-election go onto win in November.  In fact, not even all of these chief executives have a full term of experience.  Four individuals— Governors Sean Parnell (AK), Jan Brewer (AZ), Patrick Quinn (IL), and Gary Herbert (UT)—assumed the state’s top post because their predecessor left office prior to their current term expiring.  Taking that into account—and adding the 10 governors in the middle of terms, those having been elected in 2007 or ’08 are not likely to be elected to the United States Senate (North Dakota Governor John Hoeven, re-elected in 2008 to a third four-year term, is a sure bet to win the state’s open Senate seat, so a new face will appear in this office next year, too) —it’s possible that a maximum of only 20 Governors will have served more than a year in office at the beginning of 2011.  Should the election go badly for the electorally-endangered incumbents, that number could possibly drop to as low as 15.  With potentially 35 new Governors and a very large number of freshmen state legislators taking office, significant directional change for a majority of states then becomes a given.


On the other end of the spectrum, then, just how high could the change factor be in the U.S. House and Senate?  Though there are a large number of House seats in play, a turnover of even 20 percent of the seats is highly unlikely.  Right now, it appears that 75 districts can be considered as Toss-ups, or in the Lean Democrat or Lean Republican categories, with two GOP seats almost certainly headed to the other side.  Fifty-eight of those districts are currently represented by an incumbent who is seeking re-election.  Even if all 58 such Representatives were to lose—almost statistically impossible when overlaying the history of U.S. House elections—only 100 seats would change hands, meaning a new member factor of 23 percent (100 from a total of 435).  In realistic terms, if half of those 58 incumbents were to lose—a much more reasonable number even in an upheaval political year— the grand total of incoming members with little or no congressional experience would be approximately 77.  This would make the new member factor only 18 percent, suggesting that the House would remain in control of the senior members, as it always does.


But the Senate could bring us a slightly different story.  Of the 24 incumbents seeking re-election, eleven have serious, or potentially serious, competition.  If all were to lose—again a highly unlikely but not impossible scenario—we would see 23 new Senators coming to Washington for a new member factor of 23 percent.  The fact that 64 incumbents do not stand before the voters this year prevents the overwhelming transition that some observers believe could happen in the current political climate.


Though the change factor in and of itself will not affix an entirely new face on Washington, a freshman figure even approaching the levels previously discussed would have a profound effect upon the course of legislation and the direction of the country for at least the remainder of the decade.  Prepare for even more interesting times ahead.


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