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Legislative Leaders Are Losing in This Year's Primaries

Chamber leaders and committee chairs are losing their seats. It's not easy to face voters during a combined health and economic crisis, but many primaries also represent ideological battles.

Primary voting in New York
Primary voting underway Tuesday in New York, where incumbent leaders face challenges from upstarts. (Photo: Ellen M. Blalock)
The Democratic Party is preparing for a generational changing of the guard. Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, is 77, while all of the top three leaders in the U.S. House are even older, including 80-year-old Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Nonetheless, a number of candidates who are younger, more progressive and often non-white have been successfully challenging incumbents in Democratic primaries this year. Following Tuesday’s voting in New York, it appears that four new legislators backed by the leftist Working Families Party or the Democratic Socialists of America will be heading to Albany.

“Voters are tired of the same old people going up there and representing them,” says Eric Griego of the Working Families Party.

Final results from Tuesday’s voting in Kentucky and New York won’t be known for days, due to the large number of absentee ballots, but Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, a 31-year House veteran who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, lost his race against educator Jamaal Bowman. Carolyn Maloney, another congressional veteran and committee chair, is clinging to a narrow lead against Suraj Patel, a hotelier and business professor who called this a “change election.”

“This is an early signal that there are tectonic shifts possible in November,” says Daniel Squadron, a former New York legislator. “This is a moment of change and frustration.”

The desire for change has been expressed all over the country. This month alone, the top state Senate leaders in New Mexico and West Virginia were defeated in primaries. Powerful committee chairs who shaped state budgets have been shown the door. In Pennsylvania, a half-dozen incumbent legislators were ousted, including long-serving members from Philadelphia, home to one of the last old-school political machines.

“In Pennsylvania, the progressives in the Democratic Party challenged incumbents, particularly in the state legislature,” says Terry Madonna, a pollster and political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “Basically, it’s the progressives challenging what I’ll call the Democratic status quo.”

Generally, few incumbent legislators are ever challenged in primaries. Most are still winning this year. But there have been enough high-profile losses to make it clear that incumbents – who may have felt insulated by the fact that in-person campaigning has been largely put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic – can’t rest easy this year.

“Voters do want hope and a positive vision for the future,” says Gaby Goldstein, political director for Sister District Project, which helps elect Democratic legislators but doesn’t get involved in primaries. “It is a rallying cry for Democrats and perhaps more broadly to have a future worth fighting for.”

Not So Formidable

They were known as the “Formidable Five.” Five conservative Democrats in the New Mexico Senate occasionally voted with Republicans to kill progressive bills, to the frustration of their House colleagues and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “You get all these great House members sending bills over to the Senate, and the same five senators were working together to block the legislation,” says Griego, New Mexico state director for the Working Families Party and a former Democratic state senator.

On June 2, four of the five were defeated in primaries, including Mary Kay Papen, the president pro tempore, and John Arthur Smith, who has served for 32 years and chairs the Finance Committee. Their challengers were able to paint them as out of touch with district concerns. That was despite the fact that Papen in particular received heavy financial support from New Mexico Strong, a group funded by petroleum corporations such as Chevron Oil.

Papen wasn’t the only chamber leader to lose this month. Mitch Carmichael, president of the West Virginia Senate, was defeated on June 10 by Amy Nichole Grady, a teacher energized by state-level fights over teacher pay. Carmichael was one of two West Virginia senators defeated by teachers.

On Tuesday, Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne turned back a challenge from Tiffany Dunn, a teacher who had helped organize protests in the state surrounding public pension funds.

Unusual Number of Defeats

In West Virginia, Carmichael was also one of 10 sitting Republican legislators who lost in this year’s primaries, including a former state House majority leader. 

That’s an incredible percentage. In most recent cycles, only one in five incumbent legislators has even faced a primary opponent (the percentage ticking up a bit to 21.9 percent in 2018). Between 1994 and 2014, more than 97 percent of incumbent legislators won their primaries, according to Steven Rogers, a political scientist at St. Louis University. He notes that for incumbent legislators, primaries are like a cold – a nuisance, but seldom fatal.

This year’s numbers are striking, in part because of the usual circumstances that have upended campaigning. There are no parades to walk along, no service club meetings to visit, no hands to shake. Legislative candidates typically spend the bulk of their day knocking on doors, which is also verboten. All this seemed like it would play to the advantage of incumbents, who don’t face the same challenges their opponents have in newly introducing themselves to voters.

But campaigns have adapted. Everyone is holding virtual town halls. Some are trying to make the experience of connecting online more fun, hosting trivia contests or having people phone bank in groups, making their calls and then chatting among themselves through their screens. It’s actually easier to get a big-name politician to show up for a fundraiser these days, Goldstein says, because they can appear online for 20 minutes and then quickly move on to their next call. 

In New Mexico, the Working Families Party rediscovered the phone. Griego estimated that his group made 50,000 calls, talking to about 10,000 individuals, mostly in the Papen and Smith districts. They called up and then reached back out to receptive listeners, not only comparing voting records but also walking them through the process of requesting and returning absentee ballots.

The hands-on approach paid off. “By the end of the day, our canvassers had talked to these voters three or four times,” Griego says. “The incumbents lost their advantage. They were doing robocalls, featuring endorsements or saying don’t listen to these left wing groups.”

Time for a Change

Incumbents also face the hurdle of running during a difficult time for the country. The pandemic is still raging and unemployment remains high. On top of that, there have been weeks of protests across the country, a clear expression of popular discontent. 

“The quick collapse of the economy, coupled with concerns about COVID-19, could motivate voters to vote and vote for change, against incumbents,” says Jaclyn Kettler, a political scientist at Boise State University. “In general, it seems as though many people are unhappy or anxious and looking for ways to exercise their political voice.”

Kettler notes that in Idaho, several incumbent legislators were defeated in GOP primaries on June 2, largely by candidates who were more conservative and pushed back against Republican Gov. Brad Little’s stay at home orders. In West Virginia, the main action in primaries was also on the Republican side. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum spent nearly $2 million of his own money in an effort to challenge legislators he’d clashed with, helping to knock out Jeff Delzer, a fellow Republican who chairs the state House Appropriations Committee.

In blue states, it’s Democrats who are going through a sorting process, with incumbents losing to younger, more ideological candidates. At the start of the last decade, Republicans were challenged in primaries by candidates aligned with the Tea Party or other factions. Now, it’s Democrats who have to watch their left flanks. That started to be evident in 2018, from the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over a veteran member of Congress, to the defeat of numerous top Democrats in the Maryland Senate.

“There was a long period of time when there wasn’t that challenge from the left,” Goldstein says. “Having a more organized progressive movement electorally is a huge development.”

Given delays in voting this spring, there are a lot of states yet to hold primaries this summer. In those contests – and again in the fall – incumbents may find themselves feeling more heat than usual, says Squadron, executive director of Future Now, which works with Democratic legislators on policy and politics but isn’t involved in primaries. 

“People are really focused on who’s representing them, maybe more carefully than they were before,” Squadron says. “Despite the fact that traditional campaigning isn't happening, folks are expecting outcomes from their representatives.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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