Purdue Alumnus FA20 web - Flipbook - Page 37
Even if successful in challenging an incumbent, it
takes time for newly elected political figures to get up
and running and learn how to bring home that proverbial bacon for their constituents.
“It takes time to learn the ropes,” comments Sinclair-Chapman. “They need to have an opportunity to gain
some experience and move up. A legislator can offer a bill
on their first day of office, but they might not know how to
move bills throughout that process. They might not understand how to use favorable rules or assemble cosponsors
and signal to others that they should vote for it. That may
take some time — at least a couple terms, even more if they
want to move into a position of leadership.”
Beyond learning the procedural rules, there is also the
need to cultivate relationships with other legislators. Who
are you having lunch with? Where are you choosing to
Cue the exit of Joe Crowley and Eliot Engel in New York
and Dan Lipinski in Illinois — among others. Each served in
Congress for more than a decade (Engel for three), occupying powerful positions. Each lost to political outsiders who
convinced voters that their opponents didn’t reflect the
districts they represented in Congress. But for every insurgent victory, there are a dozen challengers who couldn’t
overcome the incumbent advantage in the voting booth.
THE INSIDE TRACK
“Typically, once you’re elected, you can expect to have
a long stay,” says Sinclair-Chapman.
The advantage for incumbents at election time is significant. First, there’s the name recognition. They have campaigned — and won — before. They’ve been in the headlines talking about legislation they support and what they
are doing for their community.
But it’s more than just the power of your name.
“Parties are going to support their incumbent,” says
Sinclair-Chapman. “Donors are then going to bet on
people already in office. All that contributes to silencing
Upwards of 80 percent of incumbents win reelection;
some election cycles, that figure tops 90 percent.
“This is also related to legislators’ ability to continue
bringing home the bacon for their districts. That’s why they
send newsletters about the votes they have taken and what
they’re doing for their district.”
PUR D U E A LU MN I . O RG
Of course, there are other ways to oust an incumbent
besides the ballot box. More than a dozen states currently
impose term limits. Nebraska has the strictest limits, precluding legislators from serving for more than eight years.
In other states, including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and
Ohio, legislators can serve up to 16 years.
“Term limits are attractive,” says Sinclair-Chapman. “We
think that we don’t want legislators to get used to being
in office. We think that makes them more responsive.”
Limiting the number of terms someone can serve creates
opportunities for new people who bring fresh perspective.
While the intention is sound, in practice, the results might
not deliver on expectations.
“Here’s how I say it when I’m teaching,” explains Sinclair-Chapman. “At the end of that term, we need to wonder
how that official is looking to move. Are they going to the
private sector? Are they going to try to influence the legislature from outside? The advantage of not having term limits,
in part, is knowing who your officials are working for.” It’s
all about accountability, says Sinclair-Chapman. If an official knows she can’t run for reelection, will she be more or
less likely to respond to her constituents? Will she position
herself in a way that’s attractive for a future employer?
Term limits not only create a sort of pipeline to well-paid
positions as lobbyists, consultants, or media commentators; they can also have a detrimental effect on a governing
body’s institutional memory.
“One of the things you lose with term limits is institutional memory and expertise. I always ask students, ‘If we’re
always going to have a new person in office with less experience, then who is really running things?’ Experience brings
expertise and knowledge.”
Whether voters are looking at term limits or thinking
about supporting a challenger, it’s worth pausing before
casting the ballot to weigh these questions.
FA L L 2020