Does the power of incumbency trump the power of cheese?


I was watching the election returns this last November, and found myself in a little shock that my friend Rich Engels got beat out in the election. Even though he’s on the other side of the aisle from me, and we know we don’t agree on several issues, we’ve had good discussions on politics in the past, and I give him credit for knowing his stuff. Rich is now counted in that rare fraternity of incumbents who were kicked out of office.

Here was an incumbent state legislator getting beat out – an unusual occurrence in South Dakota. Ignoring Congress, where the incumbent has a crushing financial advantage, In the state legislature where people can open their own pocketbooks to compete, there’s still not a lot of incumbent turnover in the state legislature.

Defining “kick out” as who was running for the seat they already held, but didn’t win; Who did we kick out in 2004?

  • Rich Engels (D, House, Dist 9) - General
  • Daryl Christiansen (R, House 9) - General
  • Patty DeHueck (R, Senate, 24) - Primary
  • Maurice LaRue (R, House, 29) - Primary

Michael LaPointe (R, Senate, 27) doesn’t count, because he was not elected, but appointed to fill a vacancy.

And that’s it. Just four we can count out of 105. Only two out of 105 in the general election. Too bad they can’t bottle that – it’s pretty strong stuff. Out of all the fight and bluster during the general election, only two incumbents got beat. And it wasn’t by the opposing party, in effect, their running mates traded with him.

What does it take to dump an incumbent? If it’s purely head-to-head, it’s a major undertaking. Not just your run of the mill campaign in this state, it has to be a well planned, tightly executed effort. And despite all that, you still might not win.

In South Dakota, we like to vote again for people. Generally, I’ve seen it analyzed as “people want to make the same vote as before, because they don’t want to consider that they made a mistake the first time.” And with voting for them once comes the inevitable “Name ID” – that golden factor that overrides all other factors in an election. If they voted for you once, there’s the outside chance that they might remember your name from voting for you before, and if you’re lucky, from the newspapers.

Kicking out an incumbent of any tenure is a major upset. Huge! The biggest upsets I recall ever seeing? When Roberta Rasmussen beat Walt Bones, and when Jacquie Kelley beat Homer Harding. You just don’t see upsets like that anymore. There’s lesser defeats, and I’m sure people can point out those other examples, but I see these as two of the biggest upsets at the state legislative level, ever.

Walt had served from 1975 to 1980 in the House and the rest in the Senate. He was a powerful committee chair (Ag), and through the force of his personality he dominated in the senate. You certainly could not out shout him if you tried. He was taken on by Roberta Rasmussen who at the time came out of nowhere to beat him.

In that district, I attribute Walt’s loss to a couple of factors. Primarily, it came down to Walt fatigue. Walt could grate on your personality some. He was a little obnoxious, a fault he and I share. Legislative tenure can be like a marriage. Those little things that annoy people do not become more endearing over time. Also, Walt gave up a couple weeks before the election.

Why did he give up? As I was told, he personally placed the blame on a poll.

What did that poll say? The one thing that sticks in my mind was that with about 2 weeks to go, he was 10 percentage points up, with a variability of +/- 5%. And figuring 10% was a good margin, he decided his campaign was going to coast to victory. No need to put extra money into it. I’m done. Well, in 1990, Roberta won with 54%

Why such a turnaround? An opinion poll is a snapshot in time. It says on this day, and on this date this person thinks this way. And two weeks before an election can be a long time.

If you really want to be accurate in polling, you need to do more than one, or poll over a series of dates, which is called a tracking poll. What would extra polling have told us in this race? It would have likely said that two months out, Walt was 50 points up. And, one month out, he might have been 25% up. And with two weeks to go, he was 10% up.

Plotting these things along a timeline would have predicted he was falling fast. Thinking of it that way, that analysis should have scared him.

With Homer Harding, that election was more personal. I was in Pierre, working for the party, and Homer was my hometown senator. I owe my beginning in the political process to Homer, who helped me get an internship in the South Dakota Legislature. With 18 years in the State Senate, many of those as Majority Leader, he was one of the most powerful men in the legislature, and this was during a time of giants, such as Joe Barnett.

Well, opposing him, there’s this nurse who had never ran for anything before who takes him on for the Democrats, by the name of Jacquie Kelley. Jacquie Kelley had these commercials that had Whitney Houston singing in the background “I believe the children are our future…. Teach them well and let them lead the way…” with appropriate voice over after that. I wish I could find this recording. It was so bad and cheesy, it bordered on hilarious. Even back then in less jaded times it was a gagger.

Nowadays, a smart politician would have brought up the issue of copyright infringement, and asked if she had gotten permission to use the recording, etc. Oh, those days of youth where the music industry didn’t pay attention to things like that.

The moral? Never underestimate the power of cheese. To her credit, Jacquie managed to eke out 51.1% against Homer. She ran an aggressive campaign, and went out and worked it like few Democrats in this town would. I recall that my mom (also a nurse) got a letter from Jacquie that Jacquie had signed herself. At that time, it was unheard of for that kind of mass mailing. One of those things in the early days of computer generated mail merge letters.

What did Senator Harding in more than anything? Aside from the effort of his opponent, Homer had been supportive of a measure to allow a large hog farming operation in the area, which turned out to be wildly unpopular. Not just a little unpopular, it was crushing.

Peggy Cruse who also was in this district in the house as a Dem fell victim to this too. It really was a silver bullet issue here that no one would have foreseen. I would call it the precursor to the corporate farming issues of the 90’s. Just one of those things you sometimes don’t see coming, and it steamrolled over both of them. And from this rose the two-year reign of Senator Kelley.

Since turnabout is fair play, a newcomer who had never held office before took her on two years later at the next election and beat her. He won with 52.5%. His name was Mike Rounds.


Anonymous said…
One other incumbent lost in the last election. Daryl Christensen who was from the same district as Rich. The both got beat by a couple of aggressive, intelligent women.
PP said…
Dammit! I need an editor. That's my bad. I need to check my lists a little better next time.

(War College decides to update the library)

Thanks for the correction.

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