With Sen. Lamar Alexander‘s (R-TN) Thursday primary win, every GOP Senate incumbent has successfully navigated an increasingly treacherous primary landscape. So what, if anything, should we take away from a cycle that saw five of them dip, unusually, under 60% in those nominating contests?
— First of all, the data: Those five sub-60% GOP showings equal the number from both parties in 2010, a tumultuous anti-incumbent year. There’s simply been a sharp uptick in competitive Republican primaries in the last three elections. The House, which gives us more data, shows this well. The number of GOP incumbents running essentially unopposed has fallen from around 80% to a little over 50%, while the number getting under 60% or 70% has climbed. In 2014, 1-in-5 House Republican incumbents got less than 70% in their primaries, and more than 1-in-10 got less than 60%.
— Of course, elections exist to crown a winner, and you can’t argue with Senate Republicans’ perfect record this year. In the House, there’s ample evidence that weaker-than-usual primary results can bring stronger challengers out of the woodwork, which seems to have happened to Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) this year, for example. The six-year Senate cycle makes that more difficult.
— There’s no question that the environment is riper for challengers now, though, starting with fundraising. An entire anti-incumbent fundraising apparatus now exists to push challengers closer even to popular incumbents like Alexander (though the return on investment may not be as high). That money may simply ensure some level of competition no matter what. But it’s a reality the establishment has to handle, not an excuse, and it’s tempting to wonder whether there are more viable 2016 and 2018 challengers out there who have watched some current GOP challengers with fatal flaws get around 40%, and think, “I could do better.”
In turn, that raises another question: What’s the overlap between the type of challengers who have in the past succumbed to inside pressure not to challenge Alexander et al, and the type of challengers the GOP anti-incumbent financial industry will support? We may find out in 2016 and beyond. For now, though, Senate Republicans have managed to achieve their first electoral objective of the year.— Scott Bland