The still very long odds of an Oberstar (or Walz) defeat in November

Rep. Jim Oberstar
oberstar.house.gov
Rep. Jim Oberstar

Despite seemingly being unable to capitalize on the national GOP momentum in the state’s gubernatorialrace thus far, Republicans in Minnesota are nonetheless buoyed of late by polling results suggesting DFL incumbents Tim Walz from the 1st Congressional District and D.C. mainstay Jim Oberstar from the 8th CD could be vulnerable this November.

In Walz’s case, a SurveyUSA poll released last week found the two-term incumbent with only a 47 to 42 percent advantage over Republican state Rep. Randy Demmer.

For Oberstar, the hullabaloo came not from a public poll but from one conducted by a GOP pollster, funded by the campaign of his challenger, Chip Cravaack.

Both polls provoked significant statewide and national interest in these Minnesota races, with several D.C. prognosticators shifting their ratings of these congressional seats to more competitive as a result.

Walz’s seat is now rated as “leans Democrat” by both Congressional Quarterly and the Cook Political Report, while Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Rothenberg Political Report rate it one notch safer for the incumbent (“likely Democrat” and “Democratic favored,” respectively).

Jim Oberstar’s district, which had previously not been on any of the analysts’ chalkboards of seats in play in 2010, is now rated as “likely Democrat” by Congressional Quarterly and Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg equivalent of “Democratic favored.”

But if these two seats are in fact “in play,” what are the odds they could actually flip on Nov. 2, even in a Republican-wave election year?

Smart Politics analyzed each of the more than 550 general election Minnesota U.S. House matchups conducted since statehood and finds there is only scarce historical precedence that either Oberstar or Walz can be defeated in 2010.

Overall, incumbents have appeared on the general election ballot in 487 out of 552 U.S. House races in the Gopher State, winning 425 of these, or 87.3 percent of the time.

Rep. Tim Walz
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Rep. Tim Walz

But the fact there is an incumbency advantage in congressional elections is not news.

Oberstar and Walz, however, are not ordinary incumbents.

Oberstar won his 18th term with 67.7 percent of the vote in 2008, while Walz won his second term with a nearly as impressive 62.5 percent.

Why is this important?

Only eight of 203 Minnesota U.S. House incumbents have been defeated in the general election after receiving at least 60 percent of the vote during the previous election cycle, or just 3.9 percent.

(Note: The data above exclude four incumbents who were defeated during the 1932 election, in which the Gopher State elected all nine representatives to the U.S. House as at-large representatives. This resulted in 32 candidates appearing on the ballot for nine seats, with the winning representatives carrying only between 4 and 5 percent of the vote. Six Republicans who had won election in 1930 were defeated, with four of these having earned more than 60 percent of the vote in their respective district races.)

So what does this mean for the prospects of a GOP upset in MN-01 or MN-08 in 2010?

For starters, it means Minnesota congressmen who reach the 60 percent plateau are more than five times less likely to get defeated at the ballot box (3.9 percent) than those incumbents who fall short of the 60 percent mark (21.1 percent).

For Oberstar, the numbers are even more striking.

Only one incumbent in Minnesota history has ever been defeated after winning as large a percentage as Oberstar’s 67.7 percent tally during the previous election cycle.

And the one time such a defeat did take place, it involved an incumbent who had just been out-districted.

In 1982, Arlen Erdahl  was out-districted from the 1st to the 6th district, and saw his 71.8 percent vote total in 1980 over DFLer Russell Smith fall to just 49.2 percent in defeat to DFLer Gerry Sikorski, running in a district with many new faces.

For Walz, who won 62.5 percent of the vote in 2008, this means only four incumbents in history have ever been defeated after winning as large a percentage of the vote as he did during the previous election cycle: Erdahl (71.8 percent in 1980), Republican Melvin Maas (65.1 percent in 1942), Sikorski (64.6 percent in 1990), and Republican James McCleary (64.1 percent in 1904).

In short, the vast majority of the already small universe of incumbents who have been defeated at the ballot box were not nearly as successful as Oberstar or Walz during the previous election cycle — averaging just 53.1 percent of the vote overall.

This means many of these incumbents were already involved in competitive races just two years prior to their defeat:

· Three incumbents had not won even 40 percent of the vote
· Another 10 incumbents earned between 40 and 50 percent of the vote
· Nearly three-dozen incumbents earned between 50 and 60 percent of the vote.

And of those eight incumbents who were defeated after earning at least 60 percent of the vote, half had to run during a year with brand new district lines (years ending in “2”): Erdahl in 1982, Republican Loren Fletcher in 1902, Republican Walter Judd in 1962, and Sikorski in 1992.

Of course, it is unlikely Walz will let up on the accelerator during the final two weeks of the campaign as he tries to stave off Randy Demmer. Two years prior to Walz’s defeat of GOPer Gil Gutknecht in 2006, Gutknecht had notched 59.6 percent of the vote, or about three points shy of Walz’s 2008 tally.

This article appeared on Smart Politics, the blog of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Smart Politics provides nonpartisan analysis of public policy and statewide and district elections for Upper Midwestern and national politics.


Percentage of Vote Received by Minnesota U.S. Representatives During the Election Cycle Prior to Defeat

Year
U.S. Rep.
Party
Terms
Percent
1982
Arlen Erdahl*
GOP
2
71.8
1944
Melvin J. Maas
GOP
8
65.1
1992
Gerry Sikorski
DFL
6
64.6
1906
James T. McCleary
GOP
7
64.1
1962
Walter H. Judd
GOP
10
60.9
1868
Ignatius Donnelly
GOP
3
60.8
1982
Tom Hagedorn**
GOP
4
60.6
1954
Harold C. Hagen
GOP
6
60.5
2006
Gil Gutknecht
GOP
6
59.6
1902
Loren Fletcher
GOP
5
59.4
1948
Harold Knutson
GOP
16
57.4
1920
William L. Carss
Democrat
1
57.1
2000
David Minge
DFL
4
57.0
1926
Knud Wefald
Farmer-Labor
2
56.8
1938
John T. Bernard
Farmer-Labor
1
56.4
1928
William L. Carss
Farmer-Labor
3
55.4
1990
Arlan Stangeland
GOP
7
54.6
1890
Samuel P. Snider
GOP
1
53.8
1892
William H. Harries
Democrat-Farmer’s
1
53.6
1896
Charles A. Towne
Democrat-People’s
1
53.3
1886
John B. Gilfillan
GOP
1
53.2
1890
Solomon G. Comstock
GOP
1
52.7
1958
Coya Knutson
DFL
2
52.7
1922
Halvor Steenerson
GOP
10
52.6
1878
Horace B. Strait
GOP
2
52.5
1888
Edmund Rice
Democrat
1
52.4
1888
Thomas Wilson
Democrat
1
52.0
1946
William A. Pittenger
GOP
7
51.9
1946
Frank T. Starkey
DFL
1
51.8
1966
Alec G. Olson
DFL
2
51.8
1892
James N. Castle
Democrat
1
51.8
1918
Clarence B. Miller
GOP
5
51.6
1960
Roy W. Wier
DFL
6
51.6
1948
Edward J. Devitt
GOP
1
51.5
1948
George MacKinnon
GOP
1
51.5
1890
Darwin S. Hall
GOP
1
51.4
1970
Odin Langen
GOP
6
51.2
1890
Mark H. Dunnell
GOP
6
50.4
1888
John L. MacDonald
Democrat
1
50.3
1880
Henry Poehler
Democrat
1
50.0
1938
Paul John Kvale
Farmer-Labor
5
49.7
2002
Bill Luther***
DFL
4
49.6
1944
Richard P. Gale
GOP
2
49.0
1938
Dewey W. Johnson
Farmer-Labor
1
47.8
1922
Andrew J. Volstead
GOP
10
47.5
1938
Henry G. Teigan
Farmer-Labor
1
46.3
1940
John G. Alexander****
Ind-Republican
1
45.3
1894
Osee M. Hall
Democrat
2
44.8
1940
Elmer J. Ryan
Democrat
3
43.6
1894
Melvin R. Baldwin
Democrat
1
43.4
1914
Frederick C. Stevens
GOP
9
36.8
1936
William A. Pittenger
GOP
3
35.7
1894
Haldor E. Boen
People’s
1
35.6
 
Average
 
3.6
53.1
* Arlen Erdahl was outdistricted from the 1st to the 6th District in 1982. ** Tom Hagedorn was outdistricted from the 2nd to the 1st District in 1982. *** Bill Luther was outdistricted from the 6th to the 2nd District in 2002. **** Republican John Alexander failed to win the nomination of his Party so ran on the Independent-Republican ticket instead. Data excludes the seven incumbents in state history who have been defeated in at-large elections (in 1859 and 1932) as well as the two incumbents defeated in a district race in 1934 after having been elected in a statewide election (in 1932). Data compiled by Smart Politics.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by David Willard on 10/20/2010 - 08:19 pm.

    Get ready for dirty tricks in these elections!

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