Congress Loses Hundreds of Years of Experience – But Majority of Incumbents Stick Around

BY Quinn Bowman  November 5, 2010 at 11:00 AM EDT

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Fifty-three members of the House of Representatives lost their jobs Tuesday in an election that moved 60 seats (including wins in open seats) into Republican control.

Excluding the freshmen and sophomore House members elected in the 2006 and 2008 elections, the House and Senate lost a combined 317 years of incumbent experience. This includes two veteran Democratic senators and three powerful Democratic House committee chairmen – - Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee James Oberstar, Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton and Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt.

Ten House races and the Alaska Senate race are still undecided.

Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said the outcome of the 2010 midterm election was a striking change in power.

“We know that it was the biggest switch in House seats in a midterm in more than 70 years and the biggest swing in a Congressional election since 1948,” Ornstein said. In 1938, 72 seats went from Democratic to Republican control. However, a shift of six seats in the Senate was average, according to Ornstein.

Compared to past elections, the 53 members who lost their House seats (this does not count members who quit, ran for higher office or lost their primary) in 2010 represent the biggest hit for incumbents in thirty years. But that is still just 13 percent of House incumbents who ran for office and lost – 87 percent seeking office were reelected. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the last time the percentage was that low was in 1970.

In the Senate, where incumbent loses are more common, only four incumbent Senators running for reelection lost their seats: Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold lost in the general election, while Pennsylvania Democrat Arlen Specter and Utah Republican Robert Bennett lost their primaries. Republican Lisa Murkowski in Alaska is likely to retain her seat after a write-in bid. That 90 percent reelection rate is the highest since the 2004 cycle.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans now control 53 percent of all state legislative offices – their largest percentage since 1928 – as well as 54 out of 99 of the state chambers. Ornstein said that taking into account those gains makes the 2010 outcome a historic change in the nation’s political landscape.

He cautions against projecting too far ahead based on what happened on Nov 2.

“I wouldn’t extrapolate from that. 1946 was a historic midterm when Republicans captured majorities for the first time since 1930. They picked up 55 seats, pretty big. And in 1948 they lost 75. It’s not exactly like a swing one direction means it continues in that direction,” Ornstein said. “We had something historic here: three wave elections in a row. It suggests voters’ willingness to cut slack to people in Washington is not so great.”

Vanessa Dennis contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of the graphic at the top of this post listed one veteran Republican loss in Tuesday’s election, but no experience lost. In fact, only two Republicans lost–Charles Djou of Hawaii and Joseph Cao of Louisiana. Neither served more than two terms. The current version is correct.