Discontent with incumbents and anti-Washington anger are adding up to a potentially record-breaking crowd of congressional challengers this election year.
More than 2,300 people are running for 471 House and Senate seats in the midterms. It’s the highest number of candidates in at least 35 years, according to data provided to The Associated Press by the Federal Election Commission, which began tracking candidates in 1975.
Frustration, particularly on the right, with President Barack Obama and his Democratic agenda appears to have contributed to the surge. The field is heavily Republican, with almost twice as many GOP candidates as Democrats, and several hundred independent and third-party challengers.
A strong anti-incumbent sentiment and disenchantment with the way the federal government operates and spends money are prevailing forces this election year. The latest USA Today/Gallup Poll showed near-record lows in favorable ratings for the parties — 36 percent for Republicans in May, 43 percent for Democrats.
The mood has created a rush on elective office.
Some candidates are seasoned politicians looking to make the jump from local or state government to Congress; others are little-known, underfunded novices driven by the tea party movement. With several veteran lawmakers already tossed out in primaries — three-term Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and five-term Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., among them — incumbents are keeping an eye on all the challengers.
“I had to sell my four-wheeler to pay (the filing fee), and I did. It’s worth it,” said Bruce Ray Riggs, a tea party sympathizer and first-time candidate who spent $6,960 to get on the ballot in Florida’s Senate race, which is crowded with two dozen names.
Riggs, 43, whose campaign slogan is “No suit, no tie, no political lies,” said he wanted to abolish most federal functions and give more power to the states.
“They’ve railroaded the American people,” the independent says of Congress, arguing that Washington is operating an unconstitutional government.
Riggs is among the 2,341 people who have filed statements of candidacy with the FEC for the 2010 House and Senate elections, compared with 1,717 in 2008 and 1,588 in 2006.
The tally is still climbing, with more than a dozen states still allowing candidates to file, and the true number of candidates is probably higher, since some ignore requirements to file with the FEC. Close to 40 states still haven’t held their primaries, including nine with primaries in September. The general election is Nov. 2.
The field is significantly larger than in 1976, two years after the Watergate scandal took down President Richard Nixon, and 1994, the year the GOP took control of Congress for the first time in four decades.
The next-largest field — of 2,159 candidates — was in 1992, when Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot battled for the White House.
“I guess it’s a mild form of civil unrest,” said Tom Parrott, a 59-year-old accountant who is making his first run for office as one of nine candidates in central Georgia’s 7th Congressional District race.
“Do I think I’m going to win? Maybe not. But do I get a pulpit? Yes,” he said. “I’m willing to spend 30 or 40 grand of my own money to get the chance to speak to people and maybe get my point across that we’re really, really in trouble.”
Parrott, who is running as a Republican and identifies with the tea party, said he has a strong libertarian bent. Obama’s health care law was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” in his decision to run, he said.
“I’m not a wacko,” he said. “I just think the government would be better if they just butt out and do the things they’re supposed to do like running an army and maintaining waterways and keeping our borders safe.”
Democrat Scott Withers, another rookie candidate, sees things differently.
Running in Michigan’s 5th Congressional District around Flint, with staggering unemployment from the decline of the automotive industry, Withers said government can be part of the answer. He’s trying to unseat a 34-year incumbent from his own party, Rep. Dale Kildee.
“When we just keep rubber-stamping the same person, we’re not getting any new ideas or new perspectives for our problems,” said Withers, 37, who has worked in journalism and public relations but is unemployed after being laid off from a website startup.
“I don’t believe the government should be interfering in our lives. There are areas, though, where the government can play a positive role,” he said. “We can’t keep increasing our deficit, but we need to look at moving our money around to areas that can have a bigger impact.”