Why Politicians Shouldn’t Sweat the Primaries 

It’s nearly impossible for incumbents to lose a primary. So when they do get the boot, what happened?
by | November 2016
(FlickrCC/Mike Mahaffie)

Right now, it’s crunch time for politicians up for re-election on Nov. 8 -- just weeks, in some cases, after winning their party primaries. In a polarized age, legislators worry a lot about surviving primaries. It turns out most have no reason to.

This year, a grand total of 122 state legislators were defeated in primaries, according to the politics tracking site Ballotpedia. That’s out of more than 4,000 who sought re-election. “Incumbent legislators win over 98 percent of their primaries,” says Steven Rogers, a political scientist at Saint Louis University. “This trend appears to be relatively consistent over the last 20 years.”

If it’s nearly impossible to lose a primary, then what gets a politician booted out? Most of the time, a legislator being perceived as too moderate by her base won’t do it. She might well be challenged in a primary, but she’s still highly unlikely to lose. Often it’s because the losers had clear personal failings, such as having been arrested for drunk driving or embezzlement.

Because of polarization, there’s actually less room for ideological disagreement within parties these days. Fewer legislators position themselves in the center. Party-line voting is common on key issues in most legislative chambers, so challengers are left with few chances to exploit an opening. They have a hard time gaining attention or campaign donations when incumbents are in sync with the activists and donors of their party. “That may reduce the area on the political spectrum where [opposing] candidates can position themselves,” says Robert Hogan, a Louisiana State University political scientist.

There have been some notable exceptions. In Kansas, where moderate and conservative Republicans have been at odds for years, about a dozen hardline Republicans aligned with Gov. Sam Brownback were defeated in the August primaries by a slate that had the backing of a bipartisan group of former governors. In Rhode Island, six Democratic legislators were unseated in September by more progressive challengers, including state House Majority Leader John DeSimone.

But such examples are few and far between. A fair number of state House speakers and other legislative leaders faced primary challenges, but in most cases turned them back easily. Delaware House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, for instance, was renominated in September with 74 percent of the vote. “No incumbent officeholders in the legislature who sought re-election in the face of primary opposition lost,” noted the Wilmington News Journal. “In fact, none of their races were even very close.”

Incumbents have always enjoyed big advantages. But those advantages may be even greater now, simply because of the amount of money sloshing around state politics. Legislators tend to have easier access to big donors than their challengers. “Incumbents build up those connections,” says Jaclyn Kettler, a political scientist at Boise State University. “A lot of these ideological challengers are not always the most well-known or most well-funded candidates.”

More legislators will be defeated on Nov. 8 than during the whole of the primary season. But most can rest easy. In more than 40 percent of districts, the other party didn’t bother to field a candidate.