A global pandemic and months of civil unrest in cities across the country do not appear to have changed the political landscape for state officials seeking re-election this November. With the primaries wrapped up in most places, here’s a look at how incumbents fared and what that could mean for the general election.

According to the latest figures from Ballotpedia, 89.6 percent of Democratic incumbents and 81.4 percent of Republican incumbents won their primaries this year. As of September 4, 128 incumbents lost their primary elections for state legislature.

The incumbency advantage is well documented in political science and appears to be holding up despite the unusual circumstances in the 2020 election cycle. However, this year’s figures do represent a slight shift from previous election cycles, which could signal that the political landscape is at the beginning of a larger change. 

Ballotpedia reported that in 2018, 147 incumbents lost in primaries out of the 4,952 state legislators that filed for re-election, meaning that 97 percent of incumbents seeking reelection won their primaries. In 2016, that figure was 97.5 percent, with 123 incumbents losing primary elections for state legislative seats.

The incumbent advantage is one factor keeping the majority of state legislatures controlled by the same party. Once that party gets into power, it can be hard for the other party to gain back a majority. According to Governing magazine, Minnesota was the only state to have a split legislature in 2019.

It’s too soon to tell whether the incumbent advantage will hold up in the future, but one thing that could potentially shake things up is redistricting. With the Census set to wrap up this year, the redistricting process will begin across the country as states draw new legislative districts based on population shifts.

Over the past decade, several states have pushed to end the practice of gerrymandering, or using redistricting to gain political advantage. According to Ballotpedia, 10 states have independent redistricting commissions that are designed to take partisan politics out of the process. Others, like Pennsylvania, are pushing for fair maps even when the process is still controlled by the state legislature.

Of course, COVID-19 and civil rights issues could also throw a wrench in the incumbent advantage as voters grow tired of what they perceive as inaction or lack of trust in their elected officials. Again, time will tell how these dynamics play out at the ballot box in November and beyond.


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