Why Incumbents Shouldn’t Feel Safe

They might still be defeating their challengers, but the margins are slipping.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 19: People attend a Tea Party rally in front of the U.S. Capitol, June 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. The group Tea Party Patriots hosted the rally to protest against the Internal Revenue Service's targeting Tea Party and grassroots organizations for harassment.
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Aug. 7, 2014, noon

Re­l­at­ively few mem­bers of Con­gress have lost primar­ies this year, and so far, no sen­at­ors have. But that doesn’t mean they feel safe.

And they shouldn’t.

Not­ably, more mem­bers of Con­gress, es­pe­cially on the Re­pub­lic­an side of the aisle, are do­ing worse in primar­ies this year. By one meas­ure, the party’s in­cum­bents have had more com­pet­it­ive primar­ies in the three even-year elec­tions from 2010 on­ward than in the five such elec­tions of the 2000s.

The tea party may not be end­ing many in­cum­bents’ ca­reers this year, but the move­ment is clearly still po­tent.

A re­view of every con­gres­sion­al party primary from 2000 on­ward shows that re­l­at­ively few in­cum­bents faced even mar­gin­ally com­pet­it­ive primar­ies from 2000 to 2008. Only 100 House in­cum­bents out of 1,929 fin­ished with less than 70 per­cent of their primary vote in those five elec­tions, a rate of just over 5 per­cent every elec­tion.

But with this year’s primar­ies still on­go­ing, the num­ber of in­cum­bents drop­ping be­low 70 per­cent has already reached 120 (out of 927 con­tests) from 2010 through 2014, a 13 per­cent rate. Over the past three elec­tions, more than twice as many House in­cum­bents per year have been bleed­ing sig­ni­fic­ant sup­port to chal­lengers.

The pat­tern is es­pe­cially pro­nounced among Re­pub­lic­ans. So far in 2014, fully one in five House Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents (20 per­cent) has got­ten be­low 70 per­cent of the vote in their primar­ies. One out of every 10 Re­pub­lic­ans has fin­ished be­low 60 per­cent, the point at which things start look­ing truly dan­ger­ous. Both rates are ac­tu­ally high­er than in 2012 or the “anti-in­cum­bent year” of 2010. Former House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor’s shock primary loss may have dom­in­ated the news in early June, but a few weeks be­fore and after, fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans in New Jer­sey, New York, and Col­or­ado each nar­rowly avoided de­feats of their own by just a few thou­sand votes each.

Mean­while, less than 5 per­cent of Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents have got­ten 70 per­cent or less in 2014, about the same rate it’s been for years (ex­cept for a tick up­ward in 2010 and 2012).

Even if long­time mem­bers aren’t ac­tu­ally get­ting re­placed, the in­crease in com­pet­it­ive primar­ies has got­ten the at­ten­tion of Re­pub­lic­an rep­res­ent­at­ives, and Rep. Charlie Dent says it’s changed their be­ha­vi­or.

“There’s no ques­tion that many mem­bers are much more con­cerned with their primar­ies than when I was first elec­ted,” said Dent, a mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an from Pennsylvania who joined Con­gress in 2005. “… And be­cause too many of my col­leagues are nervous about their primar­ies, it’s in­ter­fer­ing with their bet­ter judg­ment on gov­ernance is­sues. At times, I feel that too many of my col­leagues are gov­ern­ing out of fear—or I should say, not gov­ern­ing out of fear.”

There is a sim­il­ar pat­tern in Sen­ate primar­ies dat­ing back to 1996. Few­er sen­at­ors are run­ning un­op­posed and more are los­ing sig­ni­fic­ant sup­port in 2014 primar­ies than at any time in the last 20 years. Already, six GOP sen­at­ors run­ning for reelec­tion this year (one-third of the total) have fin­ished be­low 70 per­cent in their primar­ies, from Kan­sas’s Pat Roberts, who got 48 per­cent of his primary vote but won thanks to a split among his chal­lengers, to Ken­tucki­an and Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, who got just over 60 per­cent in his high-pro­file primary. Three Re­pub­lic­ans (Roberts, Mis­sis­sippi’s Thad Co­chran, and Ten­ness­ee’s Lamar Al­ex­an­der) fin­ished un­der 50 per­cent but still won.

There are sev­er­al reas­ons why this trend is im­port­ant, bey­ond pure polit­ic­al score­keep­ing; after all, in­cum­bents are still sur­viv­ing primar­ies at the same as­tro­nom­ic­al rates they have for dec­ades. Some ob­serv­ers—like Dent, who has a front-row seat—con­nect the high­er in­cid­ence of com­pet­it­ive primar­ies dir­ectly to the lower in­cid­ence of con­gres­sion­al deal-mak­ing these days.

“Just look at what happened last week,” Dent said. “I thought Chair­man [Har­old] Ro­gers and Kay Granger put to­geth­er a thought­ful plan to deal with the bor­der situ­ation, and some of my col­leagues were afraid to vote for the bill out of fear of a po­ten­tial primary two years down the road.”

“At times, I feel that too many of my col­leagues are gov­ern­ing out of fear—or I should say, not gov­ern­ing out of fear.”

Also, poor show­ings in one primary can en­tice a stronger chal­lenger to take the plunge in the next elec­tion. Case in point: Rep. Lee Terry, a Neb­raska Re­pub­lic­an, came sur­pris­ingly close to los­ing re­nom­in­a­tion in May des­pite run­ning against an un­der­fun­ded op­pon­ent. In the months after, Chip Max­well, a former Re­pub­lic­an state le­gis­lat­or who had been con­sid­er­ing run­ning for Con­gress as an in­de­pend­ent, an­nounced he would in­stead chal­lenge Terry for the GOP nom­in­a­tion in 2016. Emails from Max­well in­dic­ate he had already drawn in­terest from donors in­ter­ested in tak­ing a run at Terry.

The six-year Sen­ate cam­paign cycle may make these pres­sures less im­port­ant in that cham­ber than in the House, where in­cum­bents face voters every two years. Bri­an Walsh, a Re­pub­lic­an strategist, noted that re­cent Sen­ate in­cum­bent ousters in In­di­ana and Utah hadn’t brought qual­ity anti-in­cum­bent primary chal­lengers out of the wood­work in 2014 (though some still per­formed re­l­at­ively well thanks to re­sources from na­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive groups). And sen­at­ors have more time to pre­pare for a chal­lenge by rais­ing in­tim­id­at­ing amounts of money by the time po­ten­tial op­pon­ents are think­ing about chal­len­ging them.

“The les­son that should be gleaned is, pre­pare early and don’t take any­thing for gran­ted, and you shouldn’t have any­thing to worry about,” Walsh said. “Look at Lind­sey Gra­ham. He voted for im­mig­ra­tion re­form, he cam­paigned on it, and he ended up win­ning.”

Among oth­er things, no one in the state’s con­ser­vat­ive con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion de­cided to take a run at Gra­ham, who had already amassed over $4.4 mil­lion by the be­gin­ning of 2013.

The last ma­jor Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate primary of 2014 was Thursday night, when Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der won re­nom­in­a­tion. That shut out GOP Sen­ate primary chal­lengers in 2014—but the latest vote count puts Al­ex­an­der un­der 50 per­cent of the GOP vote. The Sen­ate chal­lengers and their House coun­ter­parts have still man­aged to un­settle a his­tor­ic share of Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents, and the trend shows no signs of slow­ing.

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