Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) is favored in today’s Kansas primary. His colleague Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) heads into Tennessee’s Thursday primary with renomination fairly certain, too. But even though that may mean no incumbent senator loses renomination this cycle, there’s still ample evidence that anti-incumbent sentiment is as serious and dangerous as ever for sitting senators.
— The No. 1 goal of every campaign is to win, and incumbent campaigns have every reason to be pleased with their records this cycle. But the string of Ws shouldn’t be mistaken for a fade in the anti-incumbent sentiment that contributed to five senators losing bids for renomination from 2006 through 2012.
— The focus on wins and losses makes sense from the perspective of congressional outcomes, but it doesn’t do justice to the electoral atmosphere. Already, five incumbent senators this year have won their primaries with less than two-thirds of the vote, something that happened only 19 times (out of 227 primaries) in the nine previous election years from 1996 to 2012. Roberts, Alexander, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) could bump that figure up to eight by the end of this week. Sure, no one has lost. (Though Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) was bailed out by Mississippi’s runoff rules after finishing second in the initial primary.) But many incumbents’ margin for error has shrunk considerably.
— And the close calls do have some effect on congressional outcomes. Conservatives especially have been watching certain senators’ voting records move toward them in election years, further polarizing the parties from each other, before sometimes moving back again after a victory. The same phenomenon of more incumbents winning their primaries with lower vote shares is evident in the House, where members have to face their party bases every two years, with obvious effects. In other words, don’t try to tell incumbents there isn’t an anti-incumbent feeling out there. They’re already playing defense against it.
Anti-incumbency shouldn’t be overhyped, given how high reelection rates continue to be. But given how much lower senators’ margin for error seems to be dropping, that sentiment shouldn’t be undersold, either.
— Scott Bland
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