Who Loses Primaries? Weak Candidates

There is stronger “anti-incumbent” sentiment than in the past, but this year’s primary losers have only themselves to blame.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, left, takes a photograph with his iPhone during an oversight committee hearing
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
Add to Briefcase
Jack Fitzpatrick
Aug. 5, 2014, 1 a.m.

This week’s House primar­ies in Michigan and Ten­ness­ee could bring this cycle’s third and fourth losses for Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents, but don’t solely blame any “anti-in­cum­bent” sen­ti­ment per­vad­ing the Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate. Per­son­al scan­dals, Santa Claus cos­tumes, and oth­er uniquely loc­al touches will be far more im­port­ant to the most vul­ner­able House mem­bers in up­com­ing primar­ies.

Re­pub­lic­an Reps. Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan and Scott Des­Jar­lais of Ten­ness­ee are on thin ice in primary races that have been defined by their in­di­vidu­al short­com­ings. Bentivolio, pre­vi­ously a reindeer farm­er and Santa Claus im­per­son­at­or, has been called the “ac­ci­dent­al con­gress­man,” hav­ing won his seat in 2012 only after Rep. Thad­deus Mc­Cot­ter un­ex­pec­tedly failed to qual­i­fy for the GOP primary, leav­ing Bentivolio as the only Re­pub­lic­an on the bal­lot. He faces a well-fun­ded at­tor­ney en­dorsed by the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, Dave Trott, on Tues­day.

Des­Jar­lais’s 2001 di­vorce pro­ceed­ings were made pub­lic in 2012, re­veal­ing that he sup­por­ted his wife’s de­cision to have two abor­tions be­fore they were mar­ried and that Des­Jar­lais, a phys­i­cian, had sexu­al re­la­tion­ships with pa­tients and cowork­ers at his of­fice and pres­sured one to get an abor­tion. He faces state Sen. Jim Tracy in an un­usu­al Thursday primary.

Des­pite a polit­ic­al at­mo­sphere that’s bad for in­cum­bents, the two Re­pub­lic­ans who have lost their seats to primary op­pon­ents — along with Bentivolio and Des­Jar­lais, who could well join them — have in­di­vidu­al weak­nesses, not at­mo­spher­ics, to blame. Rep. Ral­ph Hall, the 91-year-old Re­pub­lic­an from Texas, lost to a young­er op­pon­ent who sup­por­ted term lim­its and cri­ti­cized him for serving for so long. And though sen­ti­ments about im­mig­ra­tion and oth­er na­tion­al is­sues un­doubtedly played some part in House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor’s sur­pris­ing de­feat, the main hit on Can­tor was that he didn’t spend enough time in his dis­trict and thus didn’t take eco­nom­ist Dave Brat’s chal­lenge ser­i­ously.

At­trib­ut­ing these losses to a na­tion­wide trend “would be a huge leap of lo­gic,” said Den­ise De­Cook, a Michigan Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant with the Ster­ling Cor­por­a­tion.

“There’s the Can­tor prob­lem: He doesn’t go back to the dis­trict and knock on doors and look people in the eye­ball,” De­Cook said. “But that’s not an anti-in­cum­bent thing, it’s a Can­tor thing.”

De­Cook said she ex­pects Bentivolio to lose by a wide mar­gin not only be­cause of a sense that he nev­er be­longed in Con­gress but be­cause he hasn’t cam­paigned very hard. Trott has raised about six times as much money as Bentivolio and led by wide mar­gins in the pub­lic polls.

Des­pite the bad num­bers, Bentivolio ran a quiet cam­paign and even at­ten­ded a fact-find­ing mis­sion to Cent­ral Amer­ica only a few weeks be­fore his elec­tion. It’s pos­sible Bentivolio has resigned him­self to los­ing and is fo­cus­ing on serving out his term, De­Cook said.

“I don’t think he of­ten knows what to do polit­ic­ally,” she said. “If you’re only go­ing to be in for one term, you might as well be a con­gress­man for one term and don’t do the polit­ics.”

In the end, if Bentivolio loses, it will be “com­pletely on him,” said Dave Doyle, a Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant with Mar­ket­ing Re­source Group. “It’s the unique cir­cum­stances of Mc­Cot­ter not be­ing on the bal­lot and Bentivolio fall­ing in­to that seat.”

In Ten­ness­ee, Des­Jar­lais faces a sim­il­arly unique set of cir­cum­stances, al­though he could still man­age to squeak out a vic­tory. After the news of his in­dis­cre­tions broke in 2012, Demo­crats thought it gave them a shot at Des­Jar­lais’s deep-red dis­trict. The Re­pub­lic­an still won reelec­tion but im­me­di­ately be­came one of Con­gress’s most vul­ner­able in­cum­bents. Tracy, Des­Jar­lais’s well-fun­ded, well-con­nec­ted op­pon­ent, an­nounced his run against the in­cum­bent be­fore Des­Jar­lais was even sworn in for his second term.

Tracy has made Des­Jar­lais’s per­son­al bag­gage an is­sue in the cam­paign, but only in a subtle way early on. In a Janu­ary 2013 in­ter­view with The Daily Caller, Tracy said he was run­ning be­cause “the coun­try is bank­rupt, fin­an­cially and mor­ally” and he was a “sol­id con­ser­vat­ive “¦ in word and deed.” In a June TV ad, Tracy told view­ers that “too many con­gress­men are short on in­teg­rity.” Tracy’s mes­sage got more poin­ted as time went on: An­oth­er ad re­leased in late Ju­ly says dir­ectly that Des­Jar­lais’s scan­dals have made him less ef­fect­ive in Con­gress.

Tracy cam­paign man­ager Stephanie Jarnagin said the cam­paign has fo­cused more on how Des­Jar­lais hasn’t seemed present in the dis­trict but ad­ded that he lost sup­port among loc­al al­lies after his di­vorce pro­ceed­ings tran­scripts were re­leased, which hurt his abil­ity to raise money. Either way, Jarnagin said, if her House race is one of the rare ones to fea­ture an in­cum­bent loss, it’ll be be­cause of the can­did­ates in­volved.

“The No. 1 is­sue is not so much what happened in the past,” she said. “It’s that [Des­Jar­lais] hasn’t shown up in the dis­trict. He doesn’t go to stuff.”

What We're Following See More »
No Lobbying Clinton’s Transition Team
16 minutes ago

Hillary Clinton's transition team has in place strict rules to limit the influence that lobbyists could have "in crafting the nominee’s policy agenda." The move makes it unlikely, at least for now, that Clinton would overturn Obama's executive order limiting the role that lobbyists play in government

Federal Government Employees Giving Money to Clinton
29 minutes ago

Federal employees from 14 agencies have given nearly $2 million in campaign donations in the presidential race thus far, and 95 percent of the donations, totaling $1.9 million, have been to the Clinton campaign. Employees at the State Department, which Clinton lead for four years, has given 99 percent of its donations to the Democratic nominee.

GOP Gives Last-Gasp Cash Infusion to Save Senate
1 hours ago

Trying to save control of the Senate, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is spending $25 million on six races over the last two weeks of the race. Republicans have been consistently outspent in a majority of the Senate races this cycle. Aside from spending in Nevada, all the spending will come in defense of Republican-held seats.

Assault on ISIS Headquarters Coming Soon
1 hours ago

In an NBC News interview, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the campaign against ISIS will expand to its headquarters in Raqqa in the "next few weeks." He also reiterated that U.S. forces will not be part of any occupation of territory should it be retaken from ISIS.

Clinton Super PAC Enters the House Fray
1 hours ago

Priorities USA, the super PAC aligned with the Clinton campaign, which has already gotten involved in two Senate races, is now expanding into House races. The group released a 30 second spot which serves to hit Donald Trump and Iowa Rep. Rod Blum, who is in a tough race to win re-election in Iowa's first congressional district. The super PAC's expansion into House and Senate races shows a high level of confidence in Clinton's standing against Trump.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.