Assessing Senate GOPers’ Perfect but Tumultuous Primary Record

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 12: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) rides on the Senate Subway at the US Capitol, on December 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate worked through the night debating U.S. President Barack Obama's Circuit Court nominations. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Aug. 8, 2014, 7:45 a.m.

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

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