Double-Bunkings: Historical Lessons

Introduction

Double-bunkings are among the most enjoyable contests that redistricting connoisseurs and political wonks get to cover. There are a three main factors that fuel the mysterious allure that is often associated with them.

For one, double-bunkings are the only contests that pit two incumbents of the same party against each other. Sitting members are usually only tested by non-incumbent challengers in primary and general elections, so member-on-member races provide a unique case test for situations in which incumbency advantage is *at least somewhat* neutralized.

Second, redistricting primary coalitions are heavily regionalized. That reality gives analysts the ability to see just how important territorial advantages are when it comes to boosting candidates over the finish line. Usually, but not universally, the incumbent with the largest amount of ‘familial territory’ from his or her old seat within his or her new seat will have the easiest path to victory. The more lopsided this ratio is, the more likely a given incumbent is to defeat his or her colleague.

Finally, double-bunkings are rare by nature. Mid-decade redistricting excepted, political analysts usually get to watch only a handful of these primaries every decade. In most cases, as one will see by the end of this piece, incumbent vs. incumbent races result from reapportionment. When a state sheds congressional seats due to population loss, multiple districts are often drawn together or changed irrevocably.

Double-bunkings should not be confused with member-on-member general elections between two incumbents of opposite parties. There are usually a few of those R v. D contests every ten years, but 2022 could be the first cycle since at least 1972 where none of these races have taken place. Dan Meuser’s decision not to challenge Congressman Matt Cartwright in Pennsylvania’s 8th district ended speculation on what would have been the nation’s only incumbent vs. incumbent general election up to this point.

Double-Bunkings: 2022

With 2020’s belated-redistricting cycle finally coming to an end, 2022’s primary contests have hoved into clear view. Assuming there are no unexpected double-bunkings in Florida, there will be six member-on-member primaries over the next few months. A list of these races is provided below:

  • GA-07 (D) Carolyn Bourdeaux vs. Lucy McBath
  • IL-06 (D) Sean Casten vs. Marie Newman
  • IL-15 (R) Mary Miller vs. Rodney Davis
  • MI-04 (R) Bill Huizenga vs. Fred Upton
  • MI-11 (D) Haley Stevens vs. Andy Levin
  • WV-02 (R) Alex Mooney vs. David McKinley

Split Ticket will be covering each of these districts in further detail in future editions of Watchlist and Round-Up. Already complete for Texas, these write-ups will be coming out before and after each upcoming primary this year. Instead of myopically focusing on any specific race, this piece will take a look at one of 2002’s top double-bunking matchups to see what campaign constants remain true today.

An Old Battle With A Lasting Legacy

Each of the four double-bunking primaries in 2002 produced a particularly nasty campaign. In all four races, the most senior incumbent won. All of the winners also happened to have the most significant territorial connections to their new districts. These advantages seem to mostly account for the victors’ comfortable renomination margins.

In 2002, Democrats John Dingell and Lynn Rivers were forced into a heated primary after Michigan lost its 16th district in reapportionment. First elected in 1955, Dingell was then the Dean of the House of Representatives and an imposing figure on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Dingell name also engendered some natural good will among Wayne County residents of both parties. John’s father had served in the House for 22 years in his own right, and the younger Dingell had already weathered a competitive double-bunking primary in 1964.

On paper, Dingell’s abundant record should have scared his opponent out of the race altogether. But the former State Representative proved to be far more tenacious than expected. In succeeding veteran Democrat Bill Ford in 1994, the New York Times branded Representative Lynn Nancy Rivers as a teenage-mother-turned-lawyer who went to Washington. Rivers certainly clung to her original fighting spirit while taking on a Congressional leviathan.

The primary played out in the new 15th district, which encompassed all or part of Washtenaw, Wayne, and Monroe counties. In the general sense, redistricting pitted Dingell’s Dearborn and Rivers’s Ann Arbor bases against each other. On paper, about 2/3rds of the Democratic primary electorate lived in the parts of the district represented by Dingell under the old lines.

Besides the clear territorial boundaries, the matchup also heightened the factional divisions within the Democratic party. According to the New York Times, Rivers represented her party’s more progressive wing in competition against the more traditional, working-class faction personified by Dingell.

On the district level, this ideological divide was mirrored by the cultural divide between blue collar whites in Monroe and Wayne counties (known as Dingell Country) and more economically-secure residents living in the suburbs surrounding Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan.

But Rivers did not let the inherent disadvantages dealt to her in redistricting dissuade her from chasing victory. The New York Times considered Rivers’s dedication on the stump responsible for her late-breaking momentum against Dingell in a race that should not have been competitive, but was considered a Tossup by primary eve.

Part of Rivers’s district-level momentum can also be explained by the national attention that the 15th district primary received. Prominent liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Tipper Gore opposed Dingell, who was frequently attacked during the campaign for purportedly being soft on gun control.

In the end, regionalism carried Dingell over the line. He took 74% and 80% of the vote in Wayne and Monroe counties respectively, giving him a combined 59-41% victory districtwide. Rivers did receive 68% of the vote in Washtenaw, but Ann Arbor did not pack enough of a punch to bring her anywhere close to the finish line.

Dingell retired in 2015, going down in history both as the longest serving member of the House and its last remaining WWII veteran. His seat is currently held by his second wife Debbie, meaning Dearborn has been represented by a Dingell in Congress since 1933.

There is no doubt that the Dingell dynasty will remain one of the most compelling in modern American history.

Conclusion: How Double-Bunkings Are Fought And Won

The 15th district contest may have taken place two decades ago, but most of similarly-victorious primary campaigns to this day. Below Split Ticket has compiled a list of the most important underlying realities that general determine winners in double-bunking primaries.

*Besides the traditional additions to the watchlist, there are a few 2022-specific wildcards that must also be mentioned.*

  • The incumbent with the greatest territorial advantage in a newly-drawn district generally has traditionally had the easiest path to forming a winning coalition. Why? The more territory an incumbent retains from his or her old district, the fewer new voters that candidate needs to appeal to.
  • Seniority does matter, though not as much as territorial advantage. Generally, tenure matters more if the gap in seniority between two incumbents is extreme. (i.e. Dingell) A double-bunking between two relatively-new lawmakers like Haley Stevens and Andy Levin, for instance, would not fit this dynamic. In the case of a large gap, a veteran incumbent may have easier access to fundraising and establishment support than a novice.
  • Obviously, redistricting plays the biggest role in determining how territorial changes shake out. This can be particularly impactful when party affiliation and racial demographics are taken into account. Lacy Clay’s 2012 landslide over fellow Congressman Russ Carnahan was a great example of massive demographic and territorial advantages breaking toward one incumbent over another.
  • There is one last factor to consider for 2022 in particular: the Trump endorsement. Some analysts personally agree with Split Ticket that the former President’s endorsement power could wane this cycle, but no one can be sure until the primary season is wrapped up. If Trump’s record remains as strong as it did during his tenure, then his candidates should have unnatural advantages over challengers that would otherwise be victorious. (i.e. Alex Mooney, Mary Miller) On the other hand, a failed endorsement cycle could mean that Trump’s influence over the GOP is waning enough to threaten his 2024 ambitions.

Links

Split Ticket’s look at the Trump endorsement.

Split Ticket’s primary calendar.

A list of double-bunking primaries. *See tab DB*

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

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