Depending on the year, only five to ten percent of all congressional House seats could be called competitive. In rare instances you’ll see higher numbers. But basically, only 10% of House seats are within striking distance in any given year.
There are many reasons. Campaign laws favor incumbents over challengers. Districts are often gerrymandered (see especially California) which produce results favorable to incumbents.
Finally, people just tend to vote for incumbents. A Representative is a friend. The government is a scary thing to everyone, liberals and conservatives alike. The government can regulate your livelihood; they can claim your property under eminent domain. People want something familiar in the face of such possibilities.
An incumbent Congressman is a defense against the unknown. Because Representatives campaign every two years, they get a lot of intimate face time with the voters. Voters feel a kinship with their reps. Policy differences between friends are unimportant, what’s important is our local rep provides a sense of security against the actions of a very powerful government.
You can now see why winning a Congressional seat is always an uphill battle. Waiting for retirements, deaths or federal indictments isn’t the only answer though.
A challenge to a local incumbent is rarely successful the first time out. The challenger must humble himself before the electorate. He must become familiar to them. Losing a couple of elections is often the trick. A challenger must also show the incumbent a lot of respect. There’s no reason why you can’t like your opponent, it’s just you have better or fresher ideas.
Some of the consequences of running the same candidate three times is the campaign gets better each time. Mistakes become less frequent, donor lists get bigger and volunteers become easier to find. A strong challenger who comes back election after election will often give an incumbent motivation to retire. Also, the natural election cycle is 12 years, so if you run three elections there’s often a 50% chance the electorate has shifted enough to elect the challenger based on demographics alone.
There’s a limit, to be sure. Often if you don’t win the election on the third try, you’re never going to win it at all. Taking 6 years out of a (potential) politician’s life can be stressful and costly. But, winning a Congressional seat has rewards which far outweigh the costs.
Unfortunately, in the GOP losing any race will create a stigma (for candidates and campaign managers). The GOP is about winners, not losers. Local organizations frown upon sending the same candidate to challenge an incumbent multiple times. It is often only tolerated in un-winnable districts where it’s difficult finding people willing to put their names on the ballot.
This might be the reason the House of Representatives belonged to the Democrats for 40 years prior to 1994.
It is my hope 2006 didn’t start another 40 years of House Democratic rule.