The 9 Primaries to Watch This Week

Only two incumbents have lost congressional primaries this year, but more could be on the way in Michigan, Tennessee, and other states this week.

Kerry Bentivolio, Michigan District 11
National Journal
Adam Wollner
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Adam Wollner
Aug. 4, 2014, 1 a.m.

Life has been good, if not al­ways com­pletely com­fort­able, for con­gres­sion­al in­cum­bents so far this primary sea­son. But it may get worse this week.

Mul­tiple mem­bers of Con­gress are in ser­i­ous danger of los­ing party primar­ies at the be­gin­ning of Au­gust, po­ten­tially doub­ling the num­ber of in­cum­bent losses this year. Des­pite the slew of chal­lenges to House and Sen­ate mem­bers this year, in­clud­ing many backed by big-spend­ing out­side groups, just two in­cum­bents have been ous­ted in primar­ies: Rep. Ral­ph Hall, a 91-year-old Re­pub­lic­an from Texas, and fel­low Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Eric Can­tor, the former House ma­jor­ity lead­er.

Even for Con­gress, that’s a high rate of re­turn — though just look­ing at the re­nom­in­a­tion rate masks troubles some Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents have had this year. Sen. Thad Co­chran of Mis­sis­sippi barely avoided los­ing his primary, while col­leagues like John Cornyn in Texas and Lind­sey Gra­ham in South Car­o­lina, along with a hand­ful of House mem­bers, got un­usu­ally low sup­port even as they won their primar­ies. That may be the most likely out­come in the GOP Sen­ate primar­ies in Kan­sas and Ten­ness­ee, where in­cum­bents Pat Roberts and Lamar Al­ex­an­der have had to fight harder than usu­al but are still heav­ily favored.

But as voters in six states head to the polls to kick off the fi­nal stretch of primar­ies be­fore the gen­er­al elec­tion, a few oth­er in­cum­bents could not only do poorly but po­ten­tially find them­selves out of jobs by the end of the week. Two House mem­bers, Re­pub­lic­ans Kerry Bentivolio and Scott Des­Jar­lais, are un­der­dogs in their own primar­ies, while sev­er­al oth­er races could be close. The situ­ations vary, from Hawaii’s ap­poin­ted Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or fa­cing voters against a more ex­per­i­enced con­gress­wo­man to Des­Jar­lais deal­ing with the eth­ics fal­lout from his af­fairs with med­ic­al pa­tients to a rare com­pet­it­ive gov­ernor’s primary.

Here are the nine primar­ies to keep an eye on this week:


Michigan 11th Dis­trict. Bentivolio is for­tu­nate to even be a mem­ber of Con­gress to be­gin with, hav­ing only won in 2012 after then-Rep. Thad­deus Mc­Cot­ter stun­ningly failed to qual­i­fy for the bal­lot be­cause cam­paign work­ers had turned in fraud­u­lent nom­in­a­tion pe­ti­tions. And Bentivolio has garnered little sup­port in his primary against at­tor­ney Dave Trott. Mean­while, Mitt Rom­ney and the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce are be­hind Trott, who has brought in six times as much cash as Bentivolio this cycle and badly out­spent him, too. Bentivolio has been marked for po­ten­tial primary de­feat ever since he won in 2012, and that’s ex­actly what is ex­pec­ted to hap­pen this week.

Michigan 3rd Dis­trict. Rep. Justin Amash has made few friends among the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment dur­ing his two terms in of­fice. But Amash comes in­to Tues­day as the strong fa­vor­ite over chal­lenger Bri­an El­lis. The U.S., Michigan, and Grand Rap­ids cham­bers of com­merce lined up be­hind El­lis (a rare in­stance of the na­tion­al cham­ber back­ing a primary chal­lenger), but the Club for Growth and Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity came to Amash’s de­fense. The primary has been one of the nas­ti­est of the cycle, as evid­enced by an ad El­lis’s cam­paign aired in June, which quoted Rep. Dev­in Nunes, R-Cal­if., call­ing Amash “al-Qaida’s best friend in Con­gress.”

Kan­sas Sen­ate. Roberts ap­pears to be in good shape head­ing in­to the fi­nal days of the cam­paign. His tea-party chal­lenger, ra­di­olo­gist Milton Wolf, has been dogged by an un­usu­al scan­dal (he pos­ted X-rays of pa­tients to Face­book). That’s not to say Roberts, who’s seek­ing a fourth term, has run a flaw­less race, as he’s faced ques­tions over how much time he ac­tu­ally spends in his home state. Still, Roberts leads Wolf by 20 points, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent in­de­pend­ent auto­mated poll.

Kan­sas 4th Dis­trict. The closer race in Kan­sas on Tues­day could take place in the Koch broth­ers’ back­yard. Rep. Mike Pom­peo is re­ceiv­ing plenty of out­side sup­port as he at­tempts to thwart a comeback bid from former Rep. Todd Ti­ahrt. The PAC of Wichita-based Koch In­dus­tries and the Club for Growth en­dorsed Pom­peo, while Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity and the Amer­ic­an Chem­istry Coun­cil have hit the air­waves on his be­half in re­cent weeks. Thanks to Ti­ahrt’s late en­trance in­to the race, Pom­peo has also en­joyed a massive cash ad­vant­age. But oil mag­nate Wink Hart­man is try­ing to help close that gap by fund­ing a pro-Ti­ahrt su­per PAC. A re­cent in­de­pend­ent auto­mated poll put Pom­peo up by 7 points over Ti­ahrt, while a Pom­peo in­tern­al poll showed him lead­ing by 19.


Ten­ness­ee 4th Dis­trict. Des­Jar­lais, a phys­i­cian, sur­vived late rev­el­a­tions dur­ing his 2012 reelec­tion bid that he had mul­tiple af­fairs with cowork­ers and pa­tients, pres­sured one to have an abor­tion, and en­cour­aged his ex-wife to have two abor­tions. But he has nev­er been able to re­gain his stand­ing with party lead­ers and is fa­cing a stiff, well-fun­ded primary chal­lenge this year from state Sen. Jim Tracy. Tracy re­cently high­lighted the scan­dal in a TV ad, say­ing it makes the con­gress­man “in­ef­fect­ive in Wash­ing­ton.” On top of all Des­Jar­lais’s polit­ic­al troubles, he was dia­gnosed with a treat­able form of neck can­cer last month.

Ten­ness­ee 3rd Dis­trict. No in­cum­bent won his primary with a lower per­cent­age of the vote in 2012 than Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who re­ceived just 39 per­cent in a four-way con­test that year. We­st­on Wamp, the 27-year-old-son of former Rep. Zach Wamp, is mak­ing an­oth­er bid after fin­ish­ing third last time. Fleischmann has gone on the at­tack against Wamp, la­beling him a “showhorse” and ques­tion­ing his stances on hot-but­ton is­sues like im­mig­ra­tion, while Wamp has at­temp­ted to run as a more mod­er­ate can­did­ate.

Ten­ness­ee Sen­ate. Al­ex­an­der seems well-po­si­tioned to ad­vance through his primary, even though hard-right con­ser­vat­ives aren’t huge fans. State Rep. Joe Carr struggled to gain trac­tion through most of the race, fail­ing to earn the sup­port of any big-spend­ing con­ser­vat­ive groups. However, he re­cently picked up en­dorse­ments from Sarah Pal­in and ra­dio talk show host Laura In­gra­ham, and has run ads ac­cus­ing Al­ex­an­der of sup­port­ing “am­nesty” for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. A Carr vic­tory would still come as a shock: Al­ex­an­der’s in­tern­al polling puts him up by about 30 points over Carr.


Hawaii. The late Sen. Daniel In­ouye’s shad­ow looms large over the Aloha State’s Demo­crat­ic primar­ies this year, where two in­cum­bents face for­mid­able chal­lengers. Shortly be­fore he died in 2012, In­ouye asked Gov. Neil Aber­crom­bie to ap­point Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to take his place in the Sen­ate, but Aber­crom­bie in­stead chose his lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, Bri­an Schatz. Hanabusa is now at­tempt­ing to un­seat Schatz, while Dav­id Ige, a long­time mem­ber of the state Sen­ate, is run­ning against Aber­crom­bie, whose first-term moves on pen­sions were among sev­er­al that angered labor and oth­er key Demo­crat­ic con­sti­tuten­cies.

Pres­id­ent Obama has in­ter­vened in both of his home-state races, en­dors­ing Schatz and Aber­crom­bie. In the Sen­ate con­test, two out­side groups have made their mark in re­cent weeks, with the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters and EMILY’s List spend­ing ser­i­ous money for their pre­ferred can­did­ates, Schatz and Hanabusa re­spect­ively.

Hawaii is a no­tori­ously dif­fi­cult state to poll, but the re­cent live-caller Hawaii Poll from the two loc­al me­dia or­gan­iz­a­tions showed Hanabusa lead­ing Schatz 50 per­cent to 42 per­cent, con­tra­dict­ing a slew of auto­mated sur­veys that had shown Schatz lead­ing Hanabusa by a sim­il­ar mar­gin. But both types of sur­veys put Aber­crom­bie be­hind by double-di­gits, des­pite his enorm­ous fun­drais­ing ad­vant­age over Ige. If Aber­crom­bie loses on Sat­urday, he will be­come the just the fourth gov­ernor to lose a primary in the last dec­ade. Even if Aber­crom­bie sur­vives, he’s no lock to win in Novem­ber, des­pite Hawaii’s blue hue. Re­pub­lic­an Duke Aiona, a former lieu­ten­ant gov­ernor, is run­ning again, and former Demo­crat­ic Hon­olulu May­or Mufi Han­nemann is run­ning as an in­de­pend­ent.

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