House, Senate Candidate Pool Grows from Sour Mood

A growing number of Americans are doing more than complaining about politics as usual: They're taking matters into their own hands and running for office.

A USA TODAY analysis of 33 state primary elections finds a 35% increase over 2008 in the number of Republicans and Democrats running for House and Senate seats this year.

The uptick in candidates, many of them political novices, corresponds with an anti-incumbent sentiment sweeping across the country that has claimed the congressional careers of veteran lawmakers such as Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa.

"The anger is universal, border to border," said Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., who didn't have a primary election for 26 years until this year, when he fended off five challengers for the GOP nomination. "I just don't think it's logical to 'get rid of all of the bums.' "

Sixty-six people ran for congressional seats in North Carolina's primary May 4, up from 31 two years ago.

The trend throws added uncertainty into the political landscape as the November general election approaches. Non-partisan political observers such as The Cook Political Report predict dozens of seats — most of them held by Democrats — are in danger, leaving control of Congress as well as President Obama's legislative agenda in flux.

David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University, said many challengers smell blood for the first time since Democrats reclaimed control of Congress in 2006 by winning dozens of conservative districts and then expanded their reach in 2008.

But, he said, the likelihood that a few fresh faces will trigger systemic change is dubious. New lawmakers confront a power structure in Washington that rewards seniority — often frustrating members who campaigned on reform.

"A lot of people are being drawn in, and a lot of people are going to be disappointed," Rohde said. "They want huge changes, and this system is not designed to produce huge changes."

Steve Southerland, one of five Republicans running for a House seat in Florida's Panhandle, doesn't see it that way. Southerland, a funeral home business owner, said he will stand up for voters frustrated with government regulation and taxation. "America is waking up," he said.

Nearly 1,500 candidates appear on ballots in the 33 states where primaries have taken place or are about to, up from about 1,100 for the same states in 2008. Republican candidates outnumber Democrats nearly 2-1.

The analysis does not include third-party candidates because most did not face primaries and many have time to add their name to general election ballots.

An Associated Press analysis finds more than 2,300 people running for 471 House and Senate seats in this year's midterm election, the highest number of candidates in at least 35 years.

Other states experiencing large increases:

•Arkansas: Three of four House seats in the state have no incumbent up for re-election, and a competitive Senate race is headed toward a runoff Tuesday. The number of candidates jumped from five in 2008 to 36 this year. "There's a sense of frustration," says Arkansas Secretary of State Charlie Daniels, who jokes that the only problem with more contenders is "making sure no one gets left off" the ballot.

•Nevada: When third-party candidates are included, the state has 22 people running for the seat held by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the highest number since at least the early 20th century, said Pam duPré, spokeswoman for Nevada's secretary of State. Reid's re-election prospects are considered a "tossup" by TheCook Political Report.

•California: Nineteen percent more candidates are running for the House in the Golden State this year, increasing the number of major-party candidates running for 53 seats to 173 from 145 in 2008. Marie Panec, a first-time candidate, is one of three Democrats running in the primary June 8 to represent a House district north of Los Angeles.

"If you don't try," Panec said, "nothing happens."