State Legislative Incumbents Cruise Through Election Season With Little Competition

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The 2014 elections feature more incumbents seeking re-election, fewer incumbents with primary opposition, and fewer general elections between partisan candidates than in recent years.

This year’s lineup of state legislative elections features record low levels of competition, according to an analysis by Where competition exists, Republicans are feeling the heat more so than Democrats. In total, 56% of this year’s partisan incumbent turnover has been attributed to Republicans and 44% to Democrats.

Of the country’s 7,383 total state legislative seats, 6,056 (82%) are up for election in 2014. analyzed the competitiveness of each of this year’s races by studying the number of open seats, number of incumbents with primary challengers, and number of major party candidates with major party competition in the general election. Overall, the 2014 elections feature more incumbents seeking re-election, fewer incumbents with primary opposition, and fewer general elections between partisan candidates than in recent years.

The number of open state legislative seats has decreased over the past two years, from 21% in 2012 to just under 17% in 2014. In 2014, 986 partisan state legislators–543 Republicans and 443 Democrats–have declined to seek re-election. Republicans were more likely to retire than Democrats: 55% of this year’s retiring incumbents are Republicans and 45% are Democrats. Of the 5,049 incumbents who chose to run for re-election this year, 1,724 (34%) will advance through the primary and general elections without any opposition.

The number of incumbents facing primary opposition has also decreased over the past two years, from almost 25% in 2012 to 19% in 2014. Where primary competition does exist, it is more likely to be on the Republican side of the aisle, suggesting a relatively heightened degree of competition within the GOP over its direction. In the 27 states that have held primary elections through July, 351 Republican incumbents and 244 Democratic incumbents have faced primary opposition.

Additionally, when primary competition does exist, GOP voters have so far proven themselves somewhat more willing to turn out the incumbent: of the 595 partisan incumbents who have faced primary opposition thus far in 2014, 83 have lost a primary. Republican primary voters defeated 15% of their incumbents, while Democratic primary voters rejected 12% of their incumbents. Of the 83 defeated incumbents, 53 (64%) are Republicans and 30 (36%) are Democrats. Coming up in August and September, 235 Republican incumbents and 148 Democratic incumbents will face one or more primary challengers in the 19 states with primaries yet to be held.

The number of general elections featuring candidates from each of the two major parties has decreased from 62% in 2012 to 55% in 2014. There will be two or more major party candidates in 3,304 of the 6,056 seats with state legislative elections in 2014. This means that 1,797 candidates will face no opposition in either the primary or the general election. This includes 937 Republicans, 851 Democrats, and 9 third party candidates who effectively secured seats simply by filing to run. has published an analysis of state legislative competitiveness each year since 2010. The goal of the Competitiveness Index is to assess the relative competitiveness of state legislative elections by noting the extent to which incumbents are being turned out of office, either through retirement or through defeat.

According to Leslie Graves, the publisher of, low competitiveness in state legislative elections poses a problem for democracy. She points to a 2011 academic study that ties low rates of electoral competitiveness in state legislative elections to “policy shirking”. “Shirking,” according to the study, is when “a legislator follows his/her own legislative or policy preference, even or especially when that preference is inconsistent with the preference of his/her constituents."

About is a project of the Lucy Burns Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin. The mission of the Lucy Burns Institute is to empower people to engage in democracy by delivering exceptionally high quality information that is easy to access. Toward that end, LBI publishes,, and, online resources that equip voter with the facts about local, state, and federal politics and policy. Since the organization’s founding in December 2006, LBI’s online articles have received nearly 400 million page views.

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