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Why do incumbents stay in office? They hold the advantages and we keep reelecting them

By Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

It’s no news that Congress is unpopular. In fact, at times it seems like the only real novelty on Capitol Hill would be a jump in its approval rating.
So here’s the interesting thing: nearly three-quarters of Americans want to throw out most members of Congress, including their own representative, yet the vast majority of incumbents will be returning to Capitol Hill in January. In other words, Americans scorn Congress but keep re-electing its members. How could this be?
The first thing to remember is that members of Congress didn’t get there by being lousy politicians. They know as well as you and I that Congress is unpopular, and they’re masters at running against it — appearing to be outsiders trying to get in, rather than insiders who produce the Congress they pretend to disdain.
Just as important, incumbents enjoy an overwhelming advantage in elections. They have a large staff whose jobs focus on helping constituents. They’re paid a good salary, so they don’t have to worry about supporting their families while they campaign.
They get to spend their terms effectively campaigning year-round, not just at election time, and they are able to saturate their state or district with mass mailings.
Incumbents get the honored place in the parade, the prime speaking position, the upper hand when it comes to raising money; challengers have to fight for visibility and money. In fact, challengers are at a disadvantage at almost every point in a campaign.

To read the complete story, read the Aug. 4 print edition of the Richmond News.

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