Incumbency in Congress is a fortress rarely breached, particularly in primaries. In the 2012 elections, even amid record-low approval ratings, primary voters tossed only one senator and five members of the House from office (not including those races featuring two incumbents sqauring off because of redistricting).
The odds are clearly in favor of the members. Still, primary voters give the boot to at least some lawmakers nearly every cycle. For those facing electoral threats from within their own party, the pressure is especially acute as they return to their districts and states for the August recess. This month marks one of the better, prolonged periods for them to make a positive impression back home.
Primary losses often come out of nowhere (witness Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., who was dealt a surprise defeat last year). But with the 2014 primaries less than a year away in most states, here is a list of the members of Congress who appear most vulnerable to losing the nomination:
1) Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.
It's rare to see the name of Republican Scott DeJarlais without the adjective "embattled" attached to it these days. First, ex-wife of the antiabortion Tennessee physician had two abortions before they got married. Then came allegations that he slept with patients, and encouraged one to have abortion. (He was fined $500 by the state's medical board for patient relationships—a no-no in the medical field.) As comedian Stephen Colbert quipped, "He is still adamantly against abortion except when it endangers the political life of the father." DesJarlais has already drawn two GOP primary opponents in 2014, state Sen. Jim Tracy and state Rep. Joe Carr, who are both outraising the incumbent. Tracy ended the second quarter with $656,000 cash on hand, and Carr had $275,000. DesJarlais trailed, netting only $88,000 after raising a meager $39,000 in the second quarter.
2) Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii
Unlike every other politician on this list, Schatz has the disadvantage of not having won his seat in the first place. He was appointed in December to replace the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye, who had made it his dying wish that Hawaii's governor appoint Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to replace him. Schatz got the nod, but now Hanabusa is running to unseat him. Race is expected to be a factor, as the state is majority Asian-American and only 26 percent white. Schatz is white; Hanabusa is Asian-American. Through June, Schatz had $1.6 million cash on hand and Hanabusa had $653,000. Powerful interest groups are lining up in what's expected to be a close race, with EMILY's List backing Hanabusa and Schatz getting the support of the League of Conservation Voters' political arm.
3) Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif.
Rep. Mike Honda's presence on this list is less about him and more about his opponent: Ro Khanna, a former Obama Commerce Department official, who has banked more than $1.7 million for the race at the end of June. Khanna, 37, has assembled a team of former Obama strategists to help him sink Honda, who has $375,000 in campaign cash. Khanna had flirted with challenging Rep. Pete Stark in a neighboring California district last cycle but passed on the race. Another Democratic challenger went on to unseat Stark, taking advantage of the state's new open-primary rules, in which two Democrats can advance to the general, that Khanna hopes will allow him to top Honda as well. Honda is girding for battle, rolling out the endorsement of President Obama and a poll this spring showing him 52 points ahead. The race threatens a fissure in the Asian-American political community with Khanna, an Indian-American tight with Silicon Valley's tech community, challenging Honda, a former of the Asian-American congressional caucus who spent time in an internment camp as a kid.
4) Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho
Perhaps no outside group has exerted more influence on Republican primaries in recent years than the well-funded Club for Growth, which has singled-out Idaho's Mike Simpson as its first 2014 target. The eight-term incumbent has a low 58 percent lifetime conservative rating from the club, whose president, Chris Chocola, has called him "one of the biggest liberals in the Republican Party today." Simpson's opponent is lawyer Bryan Smith, who flexed his fundraising muscle by raising nearly $150,000 in the second quarter, mostly from Idaho donors. Simpson still holds a sizable cash advantage, with $334,000 banked, but that could be erased quickly by an infusion from the Club for Growth. Making the race all the more intriguing: Simpson is one of House Speaker John Boehner's confidants, and the contest could easily turn into a proxy war between the GOP establishment and the Club for Growth.
5) Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Mich.
Kerry Bentivolio, a former teacher and Santa Claus impersonator, is an unlikely congressman. In 2012, he waged a long-shot challenge to Republican Rep. Thad McCotter, who ended up resigning in a fraudulent-petition scandal, turning Bentivolio overnight from gadfly to front-runner. He defeated a write-in candidate for the GOP nomination and won the seat in November. He's proven to be an anemic fundraiser, however, with less than $38,000 banked at the end of June. Now, he's expected to have a serious GOP opponent with Republican David Trott expected to enter the race. Trott was a major fundraiser for Mitt Romney and should have the resources to mount a real challenge.
6) Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass.
With his brother-in-law sent to prison and allegations swrling that his wife was involved in an illegal offshore gambling ring, Rep. John Tierney narrowly won reelection last November, despite running in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. This time, he's got a serious primary challenge—with two candidates already in the race. One, Seth Moulton, is a former Marine with three degrees from Harvard and a strong campaign team, including Democratic strategist Joe Trippi and Max Glass, who managed Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's campaign in Hawaii last cycle. Also in the race is Marisa DeFranco, who waged an unsuccessful Senate primary against Elizabeth Warren last year. As of the end of June, Tierney had $376,000 banked. Republicans are watching closely, hoping that Tierney emerges even bloodier than before from the Democratic primary.
7) Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.
There is a real drop off in competitiveness after the first six races, even if the Weekly Standard recently dubbed this race "the most interesting House primary of the 2014 cycle." The contest pits freshman Rep. Rodney Davis against a 33-year-old former Miss America, Erika Harold. Two things make this an intriguing contest.
One, Davis has never won the GOP primary; local party leaders selected him last cycle after Rep. Tim Johnson announced he was retiring after he had already won the primary. Two, the seat is a top target for Democrats, meaning that Davis has less ideological room to maneuver than an incumbent in a safe seat. So far Harold hasn't proven the ability to raise the money needed to unseat Davis, with $62,000 on hand at the end of June. Davis had amassed $702,000 by then.
8) Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo.
There is a reason six of the first seven lawmakers on this list are House members and not senators: Unseating an elected senator in a primary is tough (and rare). That's why so many were surprised when Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, announced she was challenging Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming. Cheney enters the race with a national network of connections and the expected ability to raise big money—an area Enzi has acknowledged struggling, with less than $500,000 banked at the end of June. Still, Cheney must battle the "carpetbagger" label, fend off a GOP establishment that has been cool to her entry, and make the case why Wyoming should fire its incumbent. It'll be a tough sell.
9) Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
It was less than a month ago that Mitch McConnell's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, declared, "There is absolutely no risk to Senator McConnell in a primary." Since then, businessman Matt Bevin has jumped into the race and McConnell has taken to the airwaves in an early attempt to snuff out Bevin's campaign. There is no doubt that McConnell, who is perched atop a $9.5 million warchest, still remains the heavy favorite to win his primary. He has the backing of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and his campaign is being piloted by Benton, Paul's old manager. But McConnell's continued unpopularity in Kentucky, a new tea-party opponent with his own money to spend, the potential entry of other outside conservative groups, and Democrats hoping to meddle in the GOP's primary season help land him on this list.
10) Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
If Lindsey Graham had hoped his $6.3 million warchest would scare off potential primary opponents, he was wrong. He has two already, with more expected. The name of the game for those opponents is to hold Graham under 50 percent in the initial balloting and force a runoff. Graham, who has spearheaded the current immigration push and has shown a willingness to buck the GOP's party line, certainly has provided fodder for his primary opponents. Still, he remains the overwhelming favorite. His two declared opponents are former congressional candidate Richard Cash, who has nearly $250,000, and Nancy Mace, who just entered the race and was the Citadel's first female graduate in 1999. State Sen. Lee Bright hasn't formally announced yet but does have a campaign site urging sign-ups to know "the moment he announces."
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the original version of the article misstated that Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois hadn't won an election. Davis won last year's general election against David Gill; he didn't win a primary for the nomination.
This article appears in the August 8, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.