Why Incumbents Shouldn't Feel Safe

They might still be defeating their challengers, but the margins are slipping.

Relatively few members of Congress have lost primaries this year, and so far, no senators have. But that doesn't mean they feel safe.

And they shouldn't.

Notably, more members of Congress, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, are doing worse in primaries this year. By one measure, the party's incumbents have had more competitive primaries in the three even-year elections from 2010 onward than in the five such elections of the 2000s.

The tea party may not be ending many incumbents' careers this year, but the movement is clearly still potent.

A review of every congressional party primary from 2000 onward shows that relatively few incumbents faced even marginally competitive primaries from 2000 to 2008. Only 100 House incumbents out of 1,929 finished with less than 70 percent of their primary vote in those five elections, a rate of just over 5 percent every election.

But with this year's primaries still ongoing, the number of incumbents dropping below 70 percent has already reached 120 (out of 927 contests) from 2010 through 2014, a 13 percent rate. Over the past three elections, more than twice as many House incumbents per year have been bleeding significant support to challengers.

The pattern is especially pronounced among Republicans. So far in 2014, fully one in five House Republican incumbents (20 percent) has gotten below 70 percent of the vote in their primaries. One out of every 10 Republicans has finished below 60 percent, the point at which things start looking truly dangerous. Both rates are actually higher than in 2012 or the "anti-incumbent year" of 2010. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's shock primary loss may have dominated the news in early June, but a few weeks before and after, fellow Republicans in New Jersey, New York, and Colorado each narrowly avoided defeats of their own by just a few thousand votes each.

Meanwhile, less than 5 percent of Democratic incumbents have gotten 70 percent or less in 2014, about the same rate it's been for years (except for a tick upward in 2010 and 2012).

Even if longtime members aren't actually getting replaced, the increase in competitive primaries has gotten the attention of Republican representatives, and Rep. Charlie Dent says it's changed their behavior.

"There's no question that many members are much more concerned with their primaries than when I was first elected," said Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania who joined Congress in 2005. "... And because too many of my colleagues are nervous about their primaries, it's interfering with their better judgment on governance issues. At times, I feel that too many of my colleagues are governing out of fear—or I should say, not governing out of fear."

There is a similar pattern in Senate primaries dating back to 1996. Fewer senators are running unopposed and more are losing significant support in 2014 primaries than at any time in the last 20 years. Already, six GOP senators running for reelection this year (one-third of the total) have finished below 70 percent in their primaries, from Kansas's Pat Roberts, who got 48 percent of his primary vote but won thanks to a split among his challengers, to Kentuckian and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who got just over 60 percent in his high-profile primary. Three Republicans (Roberts, Mississippi's Thad Cochran, and Tennessee's Lamar Alexander) finished under 50 percent but still won.

There are several reasons why this trend is important, beyond pure political scorekeeping; after all, incumbents are still surviving primaries at the same astronomical rates they have for decades. Some observers—like Dent, who has a front-row seat—connect the higher incidence of competitive primaries directly to the lower incidence of congressional deal-making these days.

"Just look at what happened last week," Dent said. "I thought Chairman [Harold] Rogers and Kay Granger put together a thoughtful plan to deal with the border situation, and some of my colleagues were afraid to vote for the bill out of fear of a potential primary two years down the road."

"At times, I feel that too many of my colleagues are governing out of fear—or I should say, not governing out of fear."

Also, poor showings in one primary can entice a stronger challenger to take the plunge in the next election. Case in point: Rep. Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, came surprisingly close to losing renomination in May despite running against an underfunded opponent. In the months after, Chip Maxwell, a former Republican state legislator who had been considering running for Congress as an independent, announced he would instead challenge Terry for the GOP nomination in 2016. Emails from Maxwell indicate he had already drawn interest from donors interested in taking a run at Terry.

The six-year Senate campaign cycle may make these pressures less important in that chamber than in the House, where incumbents face voters every two years. Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist, noted that recent Senate incumbent ousters in Indiana and Utah hadn't brought quality anti-incumbent primary challengers out of the woodwork in 2014 (though some still performed relatively well thanks to resources from national conservative groups). And senators have more time to prepare for a challenge by raising intimidating amounts of money by the time potential opponents are thinking about challenging them.

"The lesson that should be gleaned is, prepare early and don't take anything for granted, and you shouldn't have anything to worry about," Walsh said. "Look at Lindsey Graham. He voted for immigration reform, he campaigned on it, and he ended up winning."

Among other things, no one in the state's conservative congressional delegation decided to take a run at Graham, who had already amassed over $4.4 million by the beginning of 2013.

The last major Republican Senate primary of 2014 was Thursday night, when Sen. Lamar Alexander won renomination. That shut out GOP Senate primary challengers in 2014—but the latest vote count puts Alexander under 50 percent of the GOP vote. The Senate challengers and their House counterparts have still managed to unsettle a historic share of Republican incumbents, and the trend shows no signs of slowing.