Amid a nail-biter in Ohio, where Mitt Romney edged out Rick Santorum by a mere 12,000 votes out of more than 1.2 million cast, signs of a political earthquake emerged during Tuesday’s primaries. Rep. Jean Schmidt, the three-term Republican from the Cincinnati suburbs, lost her bid for renomination to conservative activist Brad Wenstrup in a surprising upset.
Schmidt’s loss—something few had predicted before Tuesday’s vote—should send shivers down the spines of any incumbent who hoped to take a primary challenge for granted this year. It is the latest hint that, while there may be fewer competitive seats in this November’s general election, the primary season could still resemble another winter of discontent: 1992, when 43 House members lost their seats, either in primaries or in the general election.
“If I were running a campaign committee, I would be telling my colleagues: ‘Most people in this room should not assume that you’re safe,’” former Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, told me back in October. “If I were in office, I’d be running like hell no matter how well I’d done in the last couple of elections.”
In 1992, following the decennial reapportionment and redistricting process, Republicans won a net nine seats. But the real tumult came in the primary season, when members like Michigan’s Guy Vander Jagt, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee; Arkansas’s Bill Alexander, the Democratic chief deputy whip; and four others that the House Ethics Committee had sanctioned for their role in the banking scandal lost their seats.
Congress’s approval rating back then was at or near record lows. The economy was only beginning to recover. Sound familiar?
Schmidt isn’t the first victim of the 2012 cycle. Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., had faced two difficult primary challenges in 2008 and 2010. (Two years ago, Burton won just 30 percent in the Republican primary, with the remainder split between six others.) Instead of facing another grueling intraparty feud, Burton announced his retirement in January.
Those two won’t be the last. Redistricting will claim some victims—Rep. Dennis Kucinich lost his bid against Rep. Marcy Kaptur in Ohio on Tuesday, and later this month freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger and veteran Rep. Don Manzullo face off in Illinois.
And at least one outside group is taking advantage of the anti-incumbent mood in a post-redistricting cycle, historically a moment of political turmoil that has been amplified by the dissatisfaction with Congress this year. The Campaign for Primary Accountability, a super PAC funded largely by wealthy Republican-leaning donors, has targeted 11 members, some of them Republicans, for defeat. The group is batting .500 so far—it targeted both Kaptur, who won, and Schmidt, who lost.
The group’s next test comes on Tuesday, when Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus faces voters in Alabama. Bachus has been dogged by charges of insider trading, and the Campaign for Primary Accountability has spent more than $110,000 against the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, including $59,000 on a television advertisement that began running this week. The group backs state Sen. Scott Beason, who hasn’t raised much money but still presents the greatest electoral threat Bachus has ever faced.
The group is also taking aim at Manzullo and Reps. Robert Brady, D-Pa.; Tim Holden, D-Pa.; Tim Murphy, R-Pa.; Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.; Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas; and Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas.
The fact that Republicans have felt the harshest sting in primary season says something about a party that is still searching for its identity. Three years after George W. Bush left office, the activist base remains enraged at the entrenched powers-that-be inside the Beltway; look no further than Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who have lambasted Romney’s ties to the “insiders” who try to dictate the party’s presidential nominee.
But, as in 1992, turnover isn’t confined to just one party. Already, 13 House Democrats have announced they will retire outright, including some of the party’s most conservative voices—Reps. Dan Boren, D-Okla.; Heath Shuler, D-N.C.; and Mike Ross, D-Ark. Ten senators have said they will call it quits, the highest number in more than a decade.
The tumult of the bipartisan bloodbath in 1992 actually ushered in more freshmen, 110, than the Republican sweep of 1994, when 85 newcomers were elected. And those elected in 1992 still wield more influence—the class includes four House chairmen and three Democratic ranking members. There are still 29 members from that class in Congress, while just 14 members from the class of 1994 remain.
The last three election cycles have been traumatic experiences for both parties, and the waves of freshmen have changed the composition and disposition of both House Democrats and Republicans. This cycle could further alter the two parties on Capitol Hill—albeit, as Schmidt and Burton have learned, through some costly and uncomfortable intraparty housecleaning.
This article appears in the March 8, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.