Thursday, June 12, 2014

2014 Primaries: Will a Democrat Lose?

Rep. John Tierney (D-MA)

The talk amongst the entire political chatting class is still around Eric Cantor’s seismic loss on Tuesday to David Brat.  The first member of the House leadership (perhaps ever-records are a bit scant on this) to lose in a primary, the first member of the House leadership since 1994 to lose an election (Speaker Tom Foley as the last), and the first member of the congressional leadership to lose in a decade (Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle was the last), it’s quite a story.  And it has Republicans running scared.  In the past month Republican Reps. Ralph Hall and Eric Cantor, one a thirty-year incumbent and the other a House Majority Leader, have faltered, and Sen. Thad Cochran, who has served in Congress for some forty years, may well be next in a few weeks.  Sens. Lamar Alexander and especially Pat Roberts both are clearly worried that they could be potential casualties.

But the question is begged with all of this-why is it not affecting the other side of the aisle?  For the answer to that question, I did a little bit of digging.  Despite what the media may have presented to you, if you take both this election cycle and the past four cycles, and look at all of the incumbents who lost in primaries (subtracting out those that got ousted because they were facing another incumbent due to redistricting), the number is a measly 21.  Thousands of incumbents ran in those elections, and only 21 actually got ousted in a primary, which is why this is such big news.

The odder thing is that the Republicans only outnumber the Democrats by five, fairly miniscule considering the numbers.  Eight Democrats and thirteen Republicans have lost as incumbents in the past decade, most of them in the House.  So why does it seem like the Republicans have had more issues than the Democrats in the primaries?

It’s partially because what we’re considering a Tea Party victory isn’t always (in fact, it’s rarely) involving an actual incumbent.  Most of the time it’s a prominent politician who is running for an open seat or as a challenger.  Think of people like Jane Norton and Mike Castle-they were running in open seats, and everyone assumed since they were the most electable that they would make it through to the general (this of course proved false, and that cost the Republicans).  Democrats are generally better at clearing the field even if it’s an open race (only one Senate primary this cycle, for example, appears remotely competitive for the Democrats while Iowa, Georgia, and Mississippi feature tight races for the Republicans)-the GOP doesn’t seem to be able to manage an open primary in the same way, and their hands-off approach to said primaries from a congressional committee aspect (the NRCC doesn’t get involved unless there is an incumbent running, as a rule) is hurting them.

The other thing to note is what caused a number of those primary victories for the challengers.  With all thirteen of the Republican primaries, the root cause of the loss was ideological.  All of the challengers claimed that the incumbent was too moderate and they needed a “true conservative” to run instead.  The Democrats are more of a mixed bag-only five of the incumbents lost due to ideological reasons (and one of those was fighting against very recent Democrat Arlen Specter after a party shift).  With three other races (Alan Mollohan, Cynthia McKinney, and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick) the cause was more scandal involving the incumbent than based on partisan purity.

So this is why it feels like the Republicans are over-indexing in ousted incumbents, but it’s worth noting that it’s been fourteen years since the Democrats didn’t suffer at least one incumbent loss in a primary.  Provided there are no surprises (and boy howdy is that a needed caveat after last night), there are only three Democratic incumbents that seem like they could go down in a primary this cycle: Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Rep. John Tierney (D-MA), and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY).

Of the three, Schatz is probably the most vulnerable, and is the shortest-served in Congress.  Appointed to fill the term of the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, he actually started this race (against Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, far more a veteran of Congress and of Hawaii politics) as the underdog.  Recent polling, though, has shown that running to Hanabusa’s left (coupled with a very valued endorsement from President Obama) has pushed Schatz into a slight lead.  Hanabusa still has quite a bit of time in this race, but Schatz, once one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, is in the best position he’s been in in the race (I think he’d win if the election were held today).

Rep. John Tierney is the only one of these three men who will have to face both a grueling primary and general election.  Tierney’s troubles are pinned to his wife’s legal issues rather than ideology, but those are seemingly old news as he managed to skirt through the general election in 2012 (likely aided by Barack Obama’s coattails), so it’s questionable whether or not he’ll actually fall.  He’s also facing a number of challengers, and since Massachusetts doesn’t have runoffs, he’ll likely perform better the more names enter the race.  There’s still a decent chance that Tierney goes down in either the general or the primary, but he’s also not in as rough of shape as someone like Thad Cochran is.

The final race is one that doesn’t seem to be mentioned as much by the press, though it seems like it should be mentioned by me, and that is the race to succeed Rangel in New York.  Rangel is one of the most colorful characters in Congress (frequently getting lampooned by someone like Jon Stewart), but he’s had numerous ethical issues and been censured by the House.  He’s running against State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, and though he’s vowed that he won’t run again (something that Ralph Hall ominously said he wouldn’t do either), the past has indicated that he can usually pull this off.

Otherwise, I just don’t see any other incumbent Democrats in much trouble.  People like Hank Johnson have already won re-nomination, and potentially vulnerable individuals like Dan Lipinski or Jim Cooper weren’t primaried.  It seems that, for the time being, losing in a primary is going to be a largely Republican affair.

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