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
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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.”

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