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Here’s what we’ve learned from the U.S. congressional primaries so far

- June 5, 2018


This year’s congressional primaries looked to be tumultuous for both parties. Democrats are fielding three times as many candidates as they had in 2016. Republican incumbents, meanwhile, were worried that they’d face primary challengers if they antagonized President Trump’s supporters.

Slightly less than one-third of the incumbents seeking reelection have now had their primaries, or 125 out of 381. Unless the national mood changes radically over the next months, we’ve now seen enough primaries to get a sense of how the remaining primaries will play out. And that tells us a lot about the coming general election.

Let me explain.

For the past 50 years, tumultuous general elections have been preceded by high numbers of primary challenges to centrist officeholders

While the primaries in which a number of candidates compete to challenge the other party’s incumbent — a pack of Democrats, say, competing to run against a Republican member of Congress — are quite interesting, here I’ll be looking only at primaries in which an incumbent House representative fights a serious challenge from someone else in his or her own party.

Challenges to incumbents can help us understand how the parties’ base voters feel about the compromises elected officials have made. For instance, in the 2010 primaries, as the tea party fought Barack Obama’s presidency, challengers targeted moderate Republican incumbents in the primaries (and beat two of them) — and Republicans surged into the House majority that fall. Those primary challenges against Republican incumbents only increased in 2012 and 2014, as Obama’s presidency continued.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/03/21/can-democrats-retake-state-legislatures-this-fall-theyre-contesting-more-seats-than-they-have-in-decades/”]Democrats are contesting more state legislative seats than they have in decades[/interstitial_link]

The Democrats had faced something similar in 2006 and 2008, as the Democratic base reacted with antipathy toward President George W. Bush. Incumbent Democrats who the base believed were being too friendly to the administration faced a host of challengers. Even though most incumbents survive such challenges, competitive primaries may discourage politicians from voting with the opposition or pursuing bipartisan compromise.

In other words, when a general election will be tumultuous, both parties’ centrists may feel the heat during the primaries.

Here’s how I did my research

In my 2013 book “Getting Primaried,” I measured primary competition by focusing on primary races in which incumbents get no more than 75 percent of the vote. I didn’t simply tally the number of primary challenges, because many hopeless candidates run for idiosyncratic reasons, and such primary candidacies signal little or nothing. State ballot access laws differ, so some states have historically had large numbers of candidates who get a negligible percentage of the vote.

But looking only at primaries in which incumbents got no more than, say, 60 percent of the vote would mean overlooking many challenges that caused incumbents to sweat — and campaign more vigorously.

But incumbents haven’t been especially threatened so far this year

So far this year, fewer Republican members of Congress have faced serious primary challenges than at this point in the cycle in the previous 10 years. Intriguingly, that’s also true for Democratic incumbents, who’ve faced fewer primary challenges than they did in 2016, 2012 or 2010.

Of the 125 primaries held so far this year that included incumbents, 82 were Republicans, and only 43 were Democrats. Of those, 15 Republicans faced serious challenges; nine faced stronger primary opponents in past elections; and three were running in districts altered in Pennsylvania’s mid-decade redistricting.

Among the Democrats, six have faced serious primary challenges. Three have been in districts where a majority of voters are people of color; these districts always have more primary competition than mostly white districts. Two of the remaining three have been in Chicago, an overwhelmingly Democratic city, which also tends to have more competitive primaries.

In other words, few of the 2018 primary challenges appear to have been about ideology.

Some primary challenges are bids for national media attention

Sometimes, ideological interest groups use primary challenges as a way to draw national media attention. Groups such as the Club for Growth on the right or MoveOn.org on the left will invest in challenges against centrist officeholders, while promoting them nationally as referendums on centrist politicians in general.

You can usually see traces of this in campaign-finance data. This kind of challenger tends to benefit from independent spending — that is, large, unregulated expenditures from super PACs or other groups that place their own ads for or against candidates. They also tend to raise large amounts of money from out-of-state donors, presumably from online group appeals.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/05/22/whites-have-fled-the-democratic-party-heres-how-the-nation-got-there/”]Whites have fled the Democratic Party. Here’s how the nation got there.[/interstitial_link]

But so far this year, we’ve seen an unusually small number of such candidates. Only one Republican incumbent, North Carolina’s Walter B. Jones, has been targeted by any independent spending at all. Only one Republican challenger beat an incumbent: In North Carolina’s 9th district, Mark Harris defeated Rep. Robert Pittenger, with no independent spending in the race.

And among Democrats, the only race that so far has gotten national attention was Maria Newman’s unsuccessful challenge to Chicago-area moderate Democrat Daniel Lipinski; Newman’s campaign was helped by approximately $1.5 million in independent spending.

What about the wave of women?

As a number of media observers have noted, including TMC’s Danny Hayes, an unusually large number of female candidates are running for Congress on the Democratic side. Few of them, however, are challenging Democratic incumbents; they’re mostly running for open seats or in Democratic primaries to challenge GOP incumbents.

In 1992, which was deemed the Year of the Woman, 16 women challenged party incumbents, dividing equally between Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Since then, Democratic incumbents have faced a slightly larger number of competitive primary challenges from women than have Republicans, but never as many as in that year, when women were reacting to the infamous Clarence Thomas hearings, in which a Senate panel of 14 white men grilled Anita Hill about her sexual harassment allegations.

This year, Marie Newman in Chicago did bring in donations from Emily’s List and other groups that tend to favor women; in the neighboring 5th District of Illinois, incumbent Mike Quigley defeated a female opponent. But other than these two, very few women have stepped up to challenge incumbent Democrats.

This may change as the primaries continue. For instance, the Massachusetts primaries aren’t until September. There, two strong female candidates will be running against Democratic incumbents: Brianna Wu, challenging Rep. Stephen F. Lynch in the 7th District; and Boston City Council member Ayanna Pressley, running against Rep. Michael E. Capuano in the 8th District.

So what does all this mean?

First, if there is a blue wave building, it doesn’t look as if Democrats will be caught in the undertow. Second, the tea party turmoil that has roiled Republican primaries since at least 2010 appears to be spent.

In both cases, some observers might argue that this is because the ideologues have won. The Democratic Party is relatively unified, and the Republicans who might have had the most to fear from primary opponents have chosen to drop out rather than to fight.

The real competition in 2018 will be between the parties, however, not within them.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.