The challenges of incumbency


For reasons that may not be immediately obvious, this 30-second ad in an Ohio congressional race is one of the more interesting spots I’ve seen in a while.

For those who can’t watch clips online, the ad features a man named Bill Johnson standing in a field, reflecting on his 26 years in the Air Force, and complaining about “politicians in Washington.” In the ad, Johnson goes on to blast his Democratic opponent, whom he describes as “Congressman Charlie Wilson.”

Why is this interesting? Because Bill Johnson is the incumbent. The ad never mentions that he’s actually already in Congress, making him one of the “politicians in Washington” Johnson presumably doesn’t like. “Congressman Charlie Wilson” lost in 2010, but is seeking a rematch.

It’s part of a larger trend: conservatives who loved running against incumbents, levering anti-Washington attitudes in competitive districts, aren’t quite sure what to say when the shoe is on the other foot.

The House Republican freshmen ran for Congress as the ultimate outsiders determined to clean up Washington. But they’ve been here two years now; things are still a mess; and now, they want voters to send them back for another two years.

What to do? The answer, based on their early campaigning: Don’t acknowledge you’re an incumbent…. As they kick off tough reelection battles, the GOP newbies are taking pains to distance themselves from a Capitol that remains toxic, casting themselves as the same insurgent forces that swept to power in 2010.

In New Hampshire, for example, we’re seeing the exact same situation play out – Rep. Frank Guinta (R) recorded a robocall recently that says, “Hi, this is Frank Guinta, candidate for Congress, running against Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter. I’m running to end the broken culture of Washington.”

If it weren’t easy to fool people, folks like Guinta wouldn’t try to pull cynical stunts like these, pretending he’s the challenger, rather than the incumbent.

But the truth is, politicians who won in 2010, vowing to make Washington better and more effective, got to Capitol Hill and made matters much worse. Given the number of reasons this is the worst Congress ever, these GOP incumbents have to hope for widespread ignorance for the stunt to pay off.


The challenges of incumbency