Even incumbents who may be vulnerable to a primary often prevail. While some southern states force the top two vote-getters into a runoff if no one receives more than 50 percent in the first round, most states do not use this system. If too many challengers enter the race, they can split the anti-incumbent vote, allowing the unpopular office-holder to clinch renomination with a plurality.
However, every so often, an incumbent is unseated in a primary. Since 1994 a sitting member of the House has lost renomination to a challenger 31 times. This may sound like a high number, but it's important to note that during this period primary voters across the nation have re-nominated their Congressman or Congresswoman numerous times. In 2010 alone, of the over 390 representatives who sought renomination, only four were denied it. Among senators during the 1994-2012 period only seven have been denied renomination; of governors, only six were defeated. These primary losers are a rare breed, as they fell despite the seemingly sky-high odds to win.
What follows is an analysis of the members of the House members, senators and governors who lost renomination during this time. I've omitted representatives who lost renomination to another sitting representative since the dynamics of those races were different. I've also omitted the few incumbents who lost a general election to a member of the same party (In 2012, California Democratic Reps. Pete Stark and Joe Baca were defeated in a general election because of California's new top-two electoral law). In those general elections, the electorate was far larger than it would be in a primary and included members of the other party and independents who would otherwise have been barred from voting in a party primary, or chosen not to vote.
Head over the fold for a look at the unlucky incumbents.
To start out, here is a look at the House members who were deposed in 1994-2012 primaries:
In 1992, 14 incumbent representatives were jettisoned in their primaries. A combination of the House banking scandal, redistricting, and a general anti-incumbent mood made 1992 the high-water mark for primary defeats. (For more information on 1992, please see an earlier diary on House primary losses). However, things have largely settled down afterwards. While 1994 brought great change to Congress as Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to their first House majority in 40 years, successful primary challenges plummeted as only four incumbent Congressmen lost their primaries.
The years 1996 and 1998 were also dry periods, with only three House members being unseated by their electorate. Things picked up a bit in the next decade: From 2000 to 2012, 24 representatives were felled in primaries (Georgia's Cynthia McKinney lost twice, in 2002 and 2006. She is counted twice in this diary for the sake of consistency). Still, no year ever came close to equaling 1992; the closest was 2012, when five House members lost.
Taken together, the House members unseated from 1994 to 2012 generally lost for at least one of three reasons: redistricting, ethics or ideology. Of the 31 primary losers, 28 of their defeats can be explained at least in part by one of these three factors. Here is a closer analysis of each one:
While governors and senators don’t need to worry about their seats being redrawn from out from under them, members of the House do. Nationwide redistricting took effect in 2002 and 2012. In addition, Texas Republicans redrew their state's lines for 2004, while Georgia Republicans followed suit for 2006. Of the House primary defeats in this period, eight of them are partially explained by redistricting. The good news for most incumbent House members is that they won't need to worry about this again until 2022.
This is a very broad category that encompasses 13 of these representatives. It's worth breaking it down a bit more.
Convicted while running for reelection: It's bad enough to be suspected or even indicted of wrongdoing, but three representatives were outright found guilty in court, yet chose to run anyway. Unsurprisingly Craig Anthony Washington, Jay Kim and Merrill Cook all lost by double-digits. Additionally, while Earl Hilliard was not found guilty, it was well known that he had illegally failed to pay his taxes.
Suspected wrong-doing: Often a representative does not need to be found guilty of anything, merely suspected of it. Five members lost re-election with this ethical cloud lingering. Reps. Lucien Blackwell, Barbara-Rose Collins, Alan Mollohan, Cliff Stearns and Jean Schmidt were never found guilty of their alleged illegal activity, but still lost. Mollohan was even cleared by the House Ethics Committee before the primary, but it wasn't enough to save him from a double-digit loss.
Sex scandals: Surprisingly, no one lost for simply having an extramarital affair: There needed to be an additional and ugly detail involved. California's Gary Condit had an affair with intern Chandra Levy and was accused of being a part of her murder. Long after Condit's defeat, the full details of Levy's death came to light and Condit was not involved.
Other: Three defeated representatives do not easily fit into any of these categories. Georgia's Cynthia McKinney stabbed a police officer with her cell-phone in 2006; while legally the case ended quickly, the event played a major role in costing her another term. Michigan's Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick was not personally accused of wrongdoing. However, her defense for her disgraced and imprisoned son, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, was enough to taint her. In 2012 Silvestre Reyes lost his primary in part due to campaign payments to family members. While there was nothing illegal about this, it was still viewed by many as unseemly.
Representatives often lose because the primary electorate saw them as being on the wrong side on at least one key issue. For the most part, Democratic voters ousted their representative for being too conservative (Matthew Martinez, Thomas Sawyer, Al Wynn and Tim Holden) while Republicans threw their members out for being perceived as too moderate or liberal on at least one key issue (David Levy, Joe Schwarz, Wayne Gilchrest, Chris Cannon, Bob Inglis and Jean Schmidt). The exception is Oklahoma Democrat Mike Synar. A longtime liberal in a conservative Democratic district, Synar was targeted by conservative special interests and defeated.
Failed Party Switch: This is a subset of ideological differences. Every so often, a member of Congress feels they can benefit from switching parties. Sometimes their new party accepts them, but often the new electorate distrusts the incumbent. Democrat-turned-Republican Reps. Greg Laughlin and Parker Griffith and Republican-turned-Democrat Michael Forbes found out the hard way that primary voters very often aren't willing to vote for the very people they recently tried to defeat.
Other defeated House members
Three representatives don't really fit into any of these three broad categories. Georgia Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney's 2002 defeat can be attributed to her controversial remarks after the September 11 attacks. Oklahoma Republican Rep. John Sullivan had long struggled with alcoholism, and his 2012 challenger Jim Bridenstine tied it to Sullivan's missed votes. Tennessee Republican freshman David Davis was always vulnerable after only winning his 2006 primary with a tiny 22 percent of the vote. Davis was hit by his challenger, Phil Roe, for taking money from oil companies at a time when gas prices were high, contributing to Davis' surprise 2008 loss.
Only seven sitting senators lost primaries from 1994 to 2012. Unlike members of the House, senators don't need to worry about redistricting. However, in each of these cases the senators' ideology played a major role in their defeats.
Two other senators saw a party switch blow up in their face. Longtime Pennsylvania moderate Republican Arlen Specter realized he had little chance at renomination and became a Democrat. However, his long Republican past was too much for primary voters in the end. New Hampshire Republican Bob Smith left his party to run for president as an independent; after his bid went nowhere, he rejoined the Republicans, but voters held his departure against him.
Because the sample size of defeated senators is so small, it's difficult to pick up on broader trends. However, it appears more senators are losing their primaries in recent years than before. From 1994 to 2004, only two were unseated. From 2006 to 2012 five lost, with three going down in 2010 alone. It remains to be seen whether or not senators are becoming more vulnerable to primary defeats.
Only six lost renomination during this time period. Unlike representatives and senators, many governors are term-limited and even the ones who are not rarely occupy their office for decades. A potential primary challenger may decide to just wait for them to leave rather than risk a bruising defeat. Still, a few governors saw their careers go down in flames.
While no representatives or senators seem to have been punished in the primary because of the state's economic problems, three governors were. Rhode Island's Democratic Gov. Bruce Sundlun inherited a massive financial crisis and was unable to fix it (Sundlun's uncensored personal style probably hurt him as well, but the state economy did him in). Missouri Democrat Bob Holden and Nevada Republican Jim Gibbons both were saddled with economic difficulties, but both suffered for other reasons. Holden's expensive inauguration started his governorship on the wrong foot and cast a dark cloud over the rest of his tenure. Jim Gibbons was accused of sexual assault and underwent a very long and messy divorce.
The final governor on the list, Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski, also lost due to his personal style. Murkowski appointed his daughter Lisa (who would lose a primary of her own years later) to his seat, leading to charges of nepotism. Murkowski also ran into controversy over many of his policies, and for purchasing a plane for private use. Once a popular senator, Murkowski came in third in his 2006 primary, losing to a former mayor named Sarah Palin.
Other General Trends
Both parties ousted an equal number of incumbents: Of the 44 representatives, senators and governors to lose their primaries, 22 were Democrats and 22 were Republicans. Republicans were more likely to throw out their governors and senators, with nine Republicans losing to five Democrats. But Democrats threw out 18 of their representatives, compared to 13 Republicans.
The losing incumbent's party usually held their seat: Of these 44 cases, the party that unseated its incumbent kept the seat 33 times. The other party picked up the seat nine times. In these nine cases, six Democratic seats flipped while three Republican seats fell. In two other cases, the defeated incumbent was able to win in the general: Sen. Joseph Lieberman formed a third party after his primary defeat, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski ran a successful write-in campaign. Both senators continued to caucus with their original party (with Murkowski continuing to identify as a Republican).
The runoff helped defeat only a few incumbents: Of the 44 defeated incumbents, 12 hailed from southern states that required a runoff if no one cleared 50 percent in the first round of the primary. In theory this should make it easier to beat an incumbent, as it will prevent the anti-incumbent vote from being split too much. For instance, in Indiana's 6th District in 2010, Republican Rep. Dan Burton only won 30 percent in his primary. However, the other 70 percent of the vote was split between six other candidates, allowing Burton to narrowly prevail. If Indiana had a runoff system, it's a good bet Burton's nearest opponent (now-Rep. Luke Messer) would have consolidated the other candidates voters and easily beaten Burton.
However, there aren't many southern House members (and no governors and senators) who won a plurality in the primary but then lost the runoff. Seven were defeated outright in the primary (Craig Washington, Cynthia McKinney in 2002, Chris Bell, Ciro Rodriguez, Parker Griffith, John Sullivan and Silvestre Reyes). An eighth, Bob Inglis, placed second in his primary and proceeded to get clobbered in the runoff. Only four representatives won a plurality in the initial round of the primary, but then lost the runoff: Mike Synar, Greg Laughlin, Earl Hilliard and Cynthia McKinney in 2006. If their states operated under a first-past-the-post system, those House members would have survived for at least one more term, but it didn't matter for the other eight.
The one caveat is Utah, where the state's unique nominating convention appears to make it relatively easy to oust incumbents. If one candidate wins at least 60 percent of delegates at the convention, he or she wins the nomination. If no one does this, the top-two candidates advance to the primary. During this time period Gov. Olene Walker and Sen. Bob Bennett failed to advance past the convention, while Reps. Merrill Cook and Chris Cannon soon lost their primaries by double digits. Utah is only second to Texas among states that ousted an incumbent.
When incumbents lose, they lose big: Of the 31 House members to lose, 24 of them lost by at least six points. Nineteen lost by at least 10 points, and 13 lost by at least 15 points. The largest loss during this period was Bob Inglis in 2010, who fell by a massive 70-30 margin. Among the seven senators, four lost by at least six points and one more never made it past the nominating convention. Among the six governors, all of them lost by at least six (with one losing in the convention). It appears that if an incumbent is about to lose, they go down with a thud.
Few defeated incumbents return to elected office afterwards: Losing a primary usually means the end of an elected official's career. The vast majority of the defeated incumbents never ran for office again (or at least have yet to).
There are some exceptions ,though. The aforementioned Sens. Lieberman and Murkowski ran in the general elections immediately after losing their primaries and won. After her 2002 loss, Cynthia McKinney ran for her seat two years later and won it back for a term. Texas Rep. Ciro Rodriguez was able to return to Congress in a different seat two years later (albeit after unsuccessfully trying to take back his old seat that year) and held it for two terms. Additionally, Michigan Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins later served for years on the Detroit City Council, while Ohio Rep. Thomas Sawyer won a seat in the Ohio Senate and continues to hold it.
However, others have seen their comeback bids collapse. New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith ran for the U.S. Senate in Florida but dropped out when his campaign failed to gain traction. Smith is currently running for his old seat in New Hampshire, but he is considered the clear underdog in the primary. Former Utah Rep. Merrill Cook has become a perennial candidate, running for office several times since his 2000 loss and never getting far. Texas Rep. Chris Bell was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee two years after his 2004 defeat, but lost by nine points, and his 2008 bid for state Senate was also unsuccessful. After her 2006 loss, Cynthia McKinney unsuccessfully ran for president and for her old seat as a member of the Green Party. Finally, Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith tried primarying the man who beat him in 2012 and failed. Griffith has since rejoined the Democratic party and is running for governor, but has a very tough hill to climb. There are clearly some success stories, but very few defeated incumbents ever regain elected office, much less their old jobs.
Conclusions: After reading about 44 different people who lost their primaries (well, 43 with McKinney counted twice), it would be easy to lose track of how relatively rare this phenomena is. While these 44 lost, literally thousands have been renominated, often without any problem. For all their faults, elected officials are usually very good at finding ways at staying in office and keeping their base happy. The threat of a primary may be enough to prevent a challenge; by appealing to the most ideological voters in their constituencies, elected officials can often prevent a serious primary challenger, or at least have the upper hand if one comes along.
To defeat a House member, it almost always takes at least one of three things: redistricting substantially changing the district, the incumbent committing a perceived ethical lapse (often suspicion is enough; they don't even necessarily need to have done anything illegal to lose), or the incumbent being seen as ideologically out of touch with the primary electorate. The latter category is not even always as obvious as it seems. For example, despite representing reliably Democratic districts while holding conservative records, Reps. Dan Lipinski and Stephen Lynch have had little trouble winning renomination election after election. Unseating a senator or governor is even more difficult. It almost always requires an ideological wedge issue or issues, or the incumbent to make a critical mistake.
It is easy to think of elected officials who should be vulnerable to primary challenges, but actually pulling one off is very difficult. Still, as we approach the 2014 primaries, these 44 are a grim reminder to incumbents that renomination is not certain.