Paralyzing partisanship and a poor economy are leading to an exodus of some career politicians. With anti-incumbent fervor running rampant, politicians are most certainly feeling the heat.  

Paralyzing partisanship and a poor economy are leading to an exodus of some career politicians. With anti-incumbent fervor running rampant, politicians are most certainly feeling the heat. 

A number of dynamics are coming together to raise the temperature on the already-hot seats, which many politicians are straddling. 

The first dynamic is a surge of political partisanship in the last 20 years. Long-time political observers lament the fact that Democrats and Republicans no longer work together on legislative issues. This polarizing phenomenon has become exacerbated as a result of the last few presidential elections when slim vote margins determined the eventual winners. As a result, the hyper-partisanship line has been clearly delineated between the Democrats and GOP. This strong partisanship is forcing many long-time legislators to exit politics this year. They are tired of the cynicism and incivility that have enveloped Congress and state legislatures. 

Another dynamic in play is a wobbly economy that is wreaking havoc for our legislators. We all know that legislators abhor tackling issues that are onerous and fraught with political risks, such as making tough budget decisions. Unfortunately, this struggling economy is forcing Congress and legislatures to confront these economic decisions.

Almost every state in the nation is facing budget deficits, which will require uncomfortable belt-tightening at the fiscal level. In Washington, D.C., for instance, the massive economic stimulus packages are creating a budget deficit that has grown so large that its ominous cloud hangs over Washington, blocking out almost everything else.

In Wisconsin, the legislature has used a “smoke-and-mirrors” approach for eliminating past deficits in order to create a balanced (in name only) budget. Legislators have raided funds from reserved accounts, delayed payments and used unique accounting methods to balance the books. This has led to the current condition of Wisconsin having negligible budget reserves when compared to other states. Therefore, when our new legislative session begins in January 2011, the members of the Wisconsin Legislature will have the arduous task of eliminating a multi-billion dollar deficit. With revenues at a trickle, legislators will be forced to either cut expenses, such as social programs, or raise fees and taxes. 

A final dynamic is based on a long-time adage that people vote by their pocketbooks, and since the economy is barely limping along, the party in power usually incurs the wrath of the citizens when they cast their votes. Most incumbents are getting an earful from the general public, but the Democratic Party is especially feeling the heat on both the state and national levels. Disgruntled voters are letting it be known they want real change, not the pseudo-change promised in the 2008 presidential election.

Political pundits are increasingly predicting that Democrats will lose a number of seats this fall. Current predictions are that the Republicans will gain control of the House of Representatives and have a slim chance of also re-taking the Senate. In the state races, there are predications for significant Democratic defeats in legislative and gubernatorial races. Therefore, some incumbents are wondering whether it’s worth running for re-election where they would have to face voters’ wrath and then, if re-elected, have to address tough economic issues that are political pitfalls. Many politicians think it’s just not worth all the trouble.    

Between the polarizing partisanship, incumbent anger, a need to raise massive amounts of fundraising dollars and a reeling economy, many elected officials are hanging up their gloves and exiting politics. But, who can blame them? Things have changed. Negativity and discontent reign. It’s quite puzzling why someone would want to run for office and get involved in this political quagmire. But, it’s fascinating to watch how these dynamics are interwoven throughout politics and will have a significant impact on who’s elected on Nov. 2. 

Brad Legreid is executive director of the Wisconsin Dairy Products Association, Middleton, Wis.