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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