By Jamie Goldberg, Los Angeles Times
Five-term Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) unexpectedly lost his reelection bid Tuesday to tea-party-backed Navy Reserve pilot Jim Bridenstine.
Bridenstine defeated Sullivan, 53% to 47%, in Oklahoma's first district, making Sullivan the fourth incumbent congressman to lose his primary to a challenger this year. Another four House members lost to fellow incumbents in contests for newly merged districts created by redistricting.
Sullivan "failed to understand the political environment and take the campaign seriously from the beginning," said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. "The result wasn't inevitable. Other members of Congress have faced stronger opponents and won their primaries."
Gonzales pointed to Colorado's 5th District, where Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn easily defeated wealthy businessman Robert Blaha, despite Blaha's spending $750,000 of his own money on the campaign. Congressional veterans Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) also survived primary battles Tuesday.
Only 17% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, according to Gallup's June poll. Still, while voters are in an "anti-incumbent mood," Gonzales said, 98% of incumbents seeking reelection this year have won in their primary contests.
"Voters might be upset, but they're not going to vote for anyone," Gonzales said. "These challengers have to reach a threshold of credibility to take advantage of the political environment."
Sullivan said he now plans to focus on making President Obama a "one-term president."
"The voters spoke," Sullivan said in statement. "Unfortunately, we didn't come out on top."
During the campaign, Bridenstine attacked Sullivan for missing 9% of House votes since 2003. The congressman acknowledged he missed those votes while being treated for alcoholism.
Although Sullivan outspent Bridenstine $750,000 to $198,000 through the June 6 pre-primary period, he was hurt by his failure to respond quickly to Bridenstine's early attacks, Gonzales said. Bridenstine is expected to coast to victory in the heavily Republican district in November.
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