Connecticut’s U.S. House members, all Democrats, are favored to win re-election this year, thanks largely to the power of incumbency, although a couple are facing tougher competition than expected.
Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, the least senior member of the delegation, is facing her first re-election and is running against Republican David X. Sullivan. But analysts say her district is reliably “blue” and expect her to survive the “freshman’s curse,” a political phenomenon usually makes the first re-election the toughest.
The rest of the members of the delegation have traditionally faced little opposition to re-election, rarely winning less than 60% of the vote and often more than 70%.
There are several reasons a shakeup in the delegation isn’t expected this year, either. The advantage of incumbency is one of them. With an average tenure of nearly 16 years, Connecticut’s delegation is one of the longest-serving in the nation.
An incumbent usually has more name recognition because of the work they do in office. They also have larger war chests – filled in part with money from political action committees that overwhelmingly give to incumbents. And the more seniority a lawmaker accumulates — leading to more power on key congressional committees – the more PAC money he or she will receive.
That’s especially true of Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and John Larson, D-1st District. DeLauro has been serving in the U.S. House since 1991, Larson since 1999. Only 10 House members have more seniority than DeLauro, who is vying to chair the House Appropriations Committee in the next Congress, and several dozen have more seniority than Larson.
According to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission, DeLauro has raised nearly $800,000 for her re-election. About 76% of that money came from political action committees, or PACs, representing special interests including labor and industry. Larson’s campaign, meanwhile, raised nearly $1.25 million, about 80% from PACs.
DeLauro is running against a wealthy businesswoman this year, Republican Margaret Streicker, who has loaned her campaign about $1.6 million. The 15-term lawmaker has usually faced very poorly funded challengers, and Streicker’s campaign funding has ratcheted up the visibility of the 3rd District race this year.
Other races are being run more or less under the political radar, largely because of a huge campaign funding gap between the incumbent and the GOP challenger. Republican Mary Fay, for instance, a town councilor from West Hartford, has raised a little more than $25,000 in her effort to unseat Larson.
With the possible exception of Streicker, who can afford to self-fund her campaign, an incumbent’s fundraising advantage makes it difficult for the Republican party to field strong candidates, said University of Connecticut political science professor Ronald Schurin.
Biggest threat to incumbency may come from own party
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Jim Himes, D-4th District, both of whom unseated Republican incumbents, are also rising in seniority. Courtney is in his seventh term, and Himes is in his sixth.
Courtney won his first election, against former Rep. Rob Simmons, by only 83 of the 242,000 votes cast. But he hasn’t had a tough race since and won re-election in 2018 with 62% of the vote.
This year, Courtney has three challengers, Republican Justin Anderson, Green Party candidate Cassandra Martineau and Libertarian Daniel Reale. Anderson, a lieutenant colonel in the Connecticut Army National Guard, had raised $66,100 as of Sept. 30 — about half of it his own money — to challenge Courtney, whose campaign has raised about $923,000.
In the 4th District, wealth manager Jonathan Riddle has raised about $28,000 in his challenge to Himes, who raised $2.2 million.
Incumbents can also win favor through their constituent services. Staff in their offices in Washington, D.C., and in their districts can help with a multitude of problems, from finding lost Social Security payments to helping veterans secure benefits.
And incumbents can run on their records, not just promises of what they will do if elected to office.
Voters will first grapple with that record and usually evaluate a challenger as an alternative only if they have decided an incumbent’s record won’t do.
Long-serving incumbents, however, could be vulnerable to charges they are “out of touch” with the needs of their constituents.
“If they are smart, they’ll make a point to – either in person or on-line – appear in the district at every opportunity,” said Schurin.
He said Connecticut’s lawmakers have kept in touch with constituents, even as the pandemic has pushed many of their events online.
“In Courtney’s case, he has a lot of towns spread apart,” in the largely rural 2nd congressional district,” Schurin said. “But if you have to do it, you do it. And Courtney does.”
“As a general matter, it is hard to unseat incumbents of the House,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “But it is especially tough if you have incumbents who pay a lot of attention to their districts. That certainly describes DeLauro and Larson.”
Kenneth Long, a professor of history and political science at the University of St. Joseph, said the power of incumbency usually means 90% or more of U.S. House members are re-elected in each election.
But there are exceptions when events such as the 2008 recession cause voter unrest.
“People were mad at everyone and everything,” Long said. So the incumbency rate slipped to 85% in the 2010 election.
Long said the pandemic may spur another voter rebellion.
“People may decide everybody in Washington is to blame, for the pandemic,” he said.
But he said that voter anger isn’t likely to be felt much in Connecticut, because members of the Connecticut congressional delegation are “solid.”
“I can’t imagine any congressperson from Connecticut losing an election this year,” Long said.
The all-Democratic Connecticut delegation is also expected to receive a boost in their efforts to win re-election from a strongly negative voter reaction to President Donald Trump, analysts say.
“This is a high-energy election, especially for Democrats who are furious at Trump,” Long said.
Democrats wrested the U.S. House from the GOP in 2018, in a move that was seen as a rebuke to Trump policies, and Democrats are expected to keep the U.S. House after the Nov. 3 election.
FiveThirtyEight has forecast that Democrats have a 95 in 100 shot at retaining control of the House.
But with redistricting making congressional districts deeper red or truer blue, there are fewer “swing” districts where an incumbent could be ousted by a member of the opposing party.
Even the Connecticut districts that in the recent past were represented by Republicans, like Courtney’s and Himes’, have become more Democratic as demographics change — although Trump won 46% of the vote in those districts, which concerns the Democrats that represent them now.
However, in recent years, an incumbent’s greatest threat is likely to come from a member of his or her own party — in a primary.
For instance, both Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., defeated veteran incumbents in Democratic primaries.
Meanwhile, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., lost a primary in June to a QAnon adherent who successfully argued the nine-year incumbent was not conservative enough.