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Are Minnesota's U.S. House Seats Safer for Incumbents Today Than in the Past?

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This report is Part 3 in a series on the incumbency advantage in Minnesota politics.

The first two parts of Smart Politics' examination into the historical incumbency advantage in Minnesota politics delved into the extent to which more seasoned members of Congress have a greater likelihood of winning reelection as well as a case study of how electoral history is on the side of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann to win a third term in 2010.

Overall, U.S. Representatives from the Gopher State on the general election ballot have an 87 percent reelection rate over the past 150 years. The conventional wisdom is that, nationwide, U.S. House incumbents in today's political environment are safer than ever - with increasingly partisan-drawn district lines and the large campaign warchests Representatives are able to build while in office.

But a Smart Politics analysis of Minnesota's electoral history tells a different story. Aside from a decade and a half span during the rise and fall of the state's three-party system in the 1930s and 1940s, Minnesota's incumbents are being reelected at the same rate as they were 100 years ago.

Smart Politics studied each of the Gopher State's 568 general and special election matchups since statehood, and grouped these election results into decade-long census periods. The winning percentage of U.S. House incumbents was then calculated for each census period.

One of the most striking findings is not that incumbents are being reelected at a high rate, but that this rate is no higher today than it was in the 1970s, 1920s, or even the first decade of the 1900s.

In the current census period, 2002-2008, Minnesota's U.S. House incumbents have been reelected at a rate of 93.1 percent, or 27 of 29 contests (with 6-term GOPer Gil Gutknecht losing in 2006 and DFLer Bill Luther losing his seat after redistricting in 2002).

In the previous census period, 1992-2000, 94.4 percent of incumbents were reelected to D.C., or 34 out of 36 (with DFLers Gerry Sikorski and David Minge losing in 1992 and 2000 respectively).

While these recent incumbency reelection rates are extraordinarily high, they are no higher than they have been throughout most of the 20th Century in the Gopher State:

· From 1902-1910, Minnesota Representatives were reelected at a 94.3 percent rate.
· From 1912-1920, incumbents won reelection at a 92.9 percent rate.
· From 1922-1930, Representatives won their reelection bids at a 90.9 percent clip.
· From 1952-1960, U.S. House members were reelected at a 93.0 percent rate.
· From 1962-1970, incumbents won reelection at a 92.1 percent rate.
· From 1972-1980, Gopher State representatives were reelected at a 100 percent rate.
· From 1982-1990, incumbents won 92.3 percent of their general election contests.

Political Fate of Minnesota U.S. Representatives By Census Period

Period
Won
Lost
Win %
Failed Nomin.
Did not run
1857-1860
2
1
66.7
0
1
1862-1870
5
1
83.3
1
3
1872-1880
9
2
81.8
0
3
1882-1890
9
8
52.9
0
6
1892-1900
24
6
80.0
1
2
1902-1910
33
2
94.3
3
5
1912-1920
39
3
92.9
2
6
1922-1930
40
4
90.9
3
5
1932-1940
24
15
61.5
2
4
1942-1950
35
7
83.3
1
2
1952-1960
40
3
93.0
0
3
1962-1970
35
3
92.1
1
2
1972-1980
33
0
100.0
0
8
1982-1990
36
3
92.3
0
1
1992-2000
34
2
94.4
0
4
2002-2008
27
2
93.1
0
2
Total
425
62
87.3
14
57
Note: The second column from the right indicates Representatives who attempted but did not get on the general election ballot because they failed to receive their party's nomination.The far right column combines all other U.S. Representatives who did not run for reelection for a variety of reasons: retirement, resignation, running for another office, or death. In addition to the 558 U.S. House seats listed above, an additional 10 seats have been on the ballot in which there was no previous incumbent (i.e. newly created seats after reapportionment in 1857, 1872, 1882, 1892, 1902, and 1912). Data compiled by Smart Politics.

The most volatile period in Minnesota electoral history was in the 1880s, when incumbents were barely reelected a majority of the time, at just 52.9 percent. This period also coincides, not coincidentally, with the most competitive period of U.S. House elections in state history, with 56 percent of U.S. House races during this census period decided by less than 10 points (the rate from 2002-2008 is just 15.6 percent).

The only periods in which incumbents were reelected at a notably lower rate in the 20th Century were 1932-1940 (61.5 percent) and 1942-1950 (83.3 percent). This era coincided with the rise and fall of the 3-party system in the Gopher State: Republicans, Democrats, and Farmer-Laborites (the DFL merger occurred in 1944).

In fact, 22 of the 62 unseated U.S. House incumbents in Minnesota history lost their general election bids in a 16-year period, from 1932-1948. The three-party system turned over U.S. Representatives at a 3.2 times higher rate (30.5 percent) than the 75 years before (1857-1930) and the 60 years thereafter (1950-2008) (9.6 percent).

Decline of the Incumbency Advantage During the Rise and Fall of Minnesota's 3-Party System

Period
Won
Lost
% Reelected
% Defeated
1932-1948
50
22
69.4
30.5
1857-1930 + 1950-2008
375
40
90.4
9.6
Total
425
62
87.3
12.7
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

During the three-party era, Farmer-Laborites pried away several Republican seats, particularly in 1932, when the Gopher State's nine U.S. House seats were all elected in a statewide, at-large election. The Minnesota GOP U.S. House delegation was reduced from 9 members after the 1930 election to 3 after 1932. Democrats were able to hold onto only one seat, the 2nd CD, during the 1930s (district elections were resumed in 1934).

Republicans, however, won many of these seats back in 1938, when four Farmer-Laborite incumbents were defeated. After the DFL merger in 1944, six Republican incumbents lost their seats in the next three elections, including 8-term Republican Melvin Maas, 7-term GOPer William A. Pittenger, and Harold Knutson, who served in the U.S. House for 16 terms.

Pittenger, in fact, has the notoriety of losing his 8th CD seat two times: first, as a 3-term incumbent in 1936 to Farmer-Laborite John Bernard, and then again in 1946 as a 7-term incumbent to DFLer John Blatnik (Jim Oberstar's predecessor).

Defeated Minnesota U.S. Representatives, 1857-2008

Year
U.S. Rep.
Party
Terms
1859
James M. Cavanaugh
Democrat
1
1868
Ignatius Donnelly
Republican
3
1878
Horace B. Strait
Republican
2
1880
Henry Poehler
Democrat
1
1886
John B. Gilfillan
Republican
1
1888
Thomas Wilson
Democrat
1
1888
John L. MacDonald
Democrat
1
1888
Edmund Rice
Democrat
1
1890
Samuel P. Snider
Republican
1
1890
Darwin S. Hall
Republican
1
1890
Solomon G. Comstock
Republican
1
1890
Mark H. Dunnell
Republican
6
1892
William H. Harries
Democrat-Farmer’s
1
1892
James N. Castle
Democrat
1
1894
Melvin R. Baldwin
Democrat
1
1894
Haldor E. Boen
People's
1
1894
Osee M. Hall
Democrat
2
1896
Charles A. Towne
Democrat-People's
1
1902
Loren Fletcher
Republican
5
1906
James T. McCleary
Republican
7
1914
Frederick C. Stevens
Republican
9
1918
Clarence B. Miller
Republican
5
1920
William L. Carss
Democrat
1
1922
Andrew J. Volstead
Republican
10
1922
Halvor Steenerson
Republican
10
1926
Knud Wefald
Farmer-Labor
2
1928
William L. Carss
Farmer-Labor
3
1932
Victor Christgau
Sticker*
2
1932
William I. Nolan
Republican
2
1932
William A. Pittenger
Republican
2
1932
Melvin J. Maas
Sticker*
3
1932
Conrad G. Selvig
Republican
3
1932
August H. Andresen
Republican
4
1934
Henry Arens
Farmer-Labor
1
1934
Francis H. Shoemaker
Independent**
1
1936
William A. Pittenger
Republican
3
1938
Henry G. Teigan
Farmer-Labor
1
1938
Dewey W. Johnson
Farmer-Labor
1
1938
John T. Bernard
Farmer-Labor
1
1938
Paul John Kvale
Farmer-Labor
5
1940
John G. Alexander
Ind-Republican
1
1940
Elmer J. Ryan
Democrat
3
1944
Richard P. Gale
Republican
2
1944
Melvin J. Maas
Republican
8
1946
Frank T. Starkey
DFL
1
1946
William A. Pittenger
Republican
7
1948
George MacKinnon
Republican
1
1948
Edward J. Devitt
Republican
1
1948
Harold Knutson
Republican
16
1954
Harold C. Hagen
Republican
6
1958
Coya Knutson
DFL
2
1960
Roy W. Wier
DFL
6
1962
Walter H. Judd
Republican
10
1966
Alec G. Olson
DFL
2
1970
Odin Langen
Republican
6
1982
Arlen Erdahl
Republican
2
1982
Tom Hagedorn
Republican
4
1990
Arlan Stangeland
Republican
7
1992
Gerry Sikorski
DFL
5
2000
David Minge
DFL
4
2002
Bill Luther
DFL
4
2006
Gil Gutknecht
Republican
6
* Former Republican. ** Former Farmer-Laborite. Data compiled by Smart Politics.

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Next post: What Are the Odds of Incumbents Winning All 8 of Minnesota's U.S. House Races in 2010?

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