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Vulnerable Incumbents: Primary Edition

Introduction

It is rare for sitting members of the House to lose renomination because they tend to have advantages in terms of fundraising and name recognition. Outsider victories have traditionally been possible only under unique circumstances involving scandal, intra-party ideological chafing, or concentrated electoral weakness. Given the above points, it should not be surprising that the average number of incumbents falling to non-incumbent challengers each cycle is about 4.

That number is consistently small, but usually rises during redistricting years. While the effects of redrawing (exposure to new territory) and reapportionment (double-bunkings) account for most of that increase, certain cycles yield an abnormally-high level of incumbent primary losses for unrelated reasons. In 2020, for instance, a whopping 8 incumbents failed to be renominated even though the lines in 49 states were the same as they were in 2018.

At their roots, most Republican and Democratic primaries of this sort can be stratified by ideological deviations ranging from the subtle to the extreme.

On the right side of the aisle, there has been a divide between establishment and anti-establishment wings since the proliferation of the Tea Party in 2010. A perfect example of a race that stemmed directly from this severance was the 2014 GOP primary in VA-07, which saw Majority Whip Eric Cantor lose by twelve points to college professor Dave Brat.

The dynamics of this long-running fissure increased in the Trump-era as the former President tried to reshape the GOP into his own image. His support was most beneficial to House contenders during his Presidency, but it remains a valuable primary asset in specific districts even though Biden now occupies the White House.

Democrats have suffered from similar internal divisions as of late, although most political analysts would probably still agree that anti-establishment candidates have garnered more traction in the post-Trump GOP than they have on the other side of the aisle. At the most basic level, dissension on the left has split mainstream liberals off from left-wing proponents of the democratic socialism espoused by the likes of Bernie Sanders. AOC’s impressive upset of top Democrat Joe Crowley in the 2018 NY-14 primary encapsulates the rancorous juxtaposition of these two differing camps well.

Before discussing incumbents vulnerable to primary challengers over the next few months, it’s worth noting where, and how, incumbents have already gone down this cycle. So far that number sits at eight. Half have lost to non-incumbent opponents and the rest have fallen in double-bunkings. In 2012, the last redistricting cycle, thirteen total members were unsuccessful in primaries. Only five of those thirteen lost to non-incumbent challengers.

*These numbers exclude Van Taylor, a Republican from the Dallas suburbs who withdrew his reelection bid after being forced into a runoff following revelations of lewd behavior and infidelity. NE-01’s Jeff Fortenberry is also excluded because he resigned before the primary after an FBI indictment*

The losers so far this year:

Close Calls (Incumbents who posted relatively meagre victories):

With that supplementary knowledge in hand, the remainder of this article will be devoted to predicting the fates of the Congresspeople most vulnerable to remaining primary challenges. Because these types of incumbent losses are usually full-blown surprises, it can be hard to predict them with any degree of accuracy. For that reason, Split Ticket’s analysis is divided into groups by date. Each must-watch primary against an incumbent will be mentioned in some form, with particular focus given to incumbents at high risk of losing renomination (i.e., Wyoming’s Liz Cheney).

August 2nd

AZ-01

Arizona’s 1st is a marginal Biden seat centered around the Maricopa County suburbs northeast of Phoenix, including Scottsdale. This district is represented by Dave Schweikert, a veteran incumbent who survived credible challenges in both 2018 and 2020 despite allegations of ethical violations. Redistricting forced him into a bluer seat, but he remains a tentative favorite because the environment is expected to benefit Republicans. It is also unclear whether Schweikert’s ethical issues will be relitigated after 2020, potentially deflating a Democratic line of attack.

With the general election rated Leans Republican, the primary is the more interesting contest. That race has been turned upside down by Elijah Norton, a self-funding businessman who has outraised Schweikert by a 2:1 margin. The incumbent is still a favorite in this district, but there is always reason to watch contests with big-spenders running against the status quo.

MI-03

Michigan’s 3rd is a Biden +9 seat connecting Grand Rapids and Muskegon with lesser-populated turf in between. The incumbent here is Peter Meijer, a traditional conservative with strong local connections and adequate crossover appeal among anti-Trump Dutch conservatives. His new seat was made bluer in redistricting, but remains redder down ballot. 2020 Senate candidate John James, for example, would have lost the 3rd (Biden +9) by only 2 points because he outran the top of the ticket in Kent County.

Meijer is the frontrunner in his primary, but his position is not completely secure. He faces a challenge from Trump-endorsed candidate John Gibbs, a former federal official running far to the right of the Republican electorate in the district. This 3rd is currently rated Tossup, but would move to Leans Democratic if Gibbs wins. 2020 nominee Hillary Scholten, a top Democratic recruit, is the nominee again this year.

MI-11

Michigan’s 11th is a comfortably-Democratic seat taking in bluer parts of Oakland County like Pontiac and Oak Park. It is the scene of a double-bunking between Haley Stevens (MI-11) and Andy Levin (MI-09). Levin, the scion of a prominent political family in the state, has been running neck and neck with Stevens in polling released over the last few months.

Both candidates have similarly-liberal records, but Levin seems to have adopted the more progressive rhetorical lane. In terms of geography, Stevens has a slight edge. She represents a 38% plurality of the new district. To win the nomination in this 11th, much like the GOP primary in IL-15, the victor will have to appeal to the 33% of the seat’s constituents not currently represented by either candidate.

WA-03 & WA-04

In Washington’s 3rd and 4th districts, two pro-impeachment Republican incumbents face spirited challenges from Trump-endorsed candidates. The more marginal of the two seats is the 3rd, which includes the southwestern half of the Evergreen State around the city of Vancouver. It is currently represented by Jamie Herrera-Beutler, a tenured incumbent who is running close to right-wing challenger Joe Kent in the polls.

Further to the east over the Cascades, the Yakima-based 4th cuts a vertical line across Washington. This district is more Republican than its aforementioned counterpart, but both seats are rated safe this cycle. The incumbent in the 4th, Dan Newhouse, is no stranger to close races against challengers on the right. In 2014 and 2016 he faced and defeated Clint Didier in R vs. R general elections. His most prominent opponent this year is Loren Culp, the 2020 GOP nominee for Washington Governor.

Because Washington has a jungle primary, it is possible that Republicans will lock the Democrats out of both the 3rd and 4th heading into the general election. Polling has indicated that this is a serious possibility, since Democrats have weak candidates in both races.

August 16th

WY-AL

The Republican incumbent most vulnerable to a primary challenge this cycle is widely considered to be Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, a supporter of Trump’s second impeachment and Vice Chair of the Jan. 6th Committee. Although Cheney’s career began auspiciously after her election in 2016, culminating with her service as Chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, it all collapsed when her consistent anti-Trump rhetoric disconnected her from the rest of the GOP caucus.

At the moment, both polling and fundamentals suggest that the real question is not whether Cheney will lose, but rather by how much. Trump’s preferred candidate is Harriet Hageman, an attorney. Although a third candidate, state Senator Anthony Bouchard, will likely pull a significant number of votes away from Hageman, Cheney’s coalition will probably be too small as it stands to capitalize on that minor internal division.

The incumbent has appealed to Democrats on certain Jan. 6th related issues, but has simultaneously turned off those voters with ardently-conservative takes on cultural debates regarding issues like abortion rights. Even if a large number of Democrats hypothetically reregistered to vote in the GOP primary, there would simply not be enough of them to make a difference in a solidly-red state like Wyoming.

August 23rd

FL-20

In the black-majority 20th district, located in southern Florida, new Congresswoman Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick is seeking a full term. She won easily in a January special election to replace the late Democrat Alcee Hastings, but had struggled to secure the party’s nomination before that. Amid a crowded Democratic field, Cherfilus-McCormick beat her leading opponent Dale Holness by just 5 votes – 23.8 to 23.8%.

Holness, a Broward County Commissioner, is now challenging the incumbent again. Cherfilus-McCormick should have a critical incumbency boost this time, much like that which Shontel Brown benefitted from in her Ohio primary rematch against Nina Turner earlier this year.

To win, Holness will need to supplement his probable strength in the Broward section of the seat with a decent performance in its Palm Beach portion. Both candidates live in Broward County, which makes up a hefty majority of the district’s population.

NY-10

Perhaps the most chaotic Democratic primary in the country is shaping up in New York’s 10th district. The new seat stretches from Greenwich Village and Manhattan’s remaining southern extent southward to Brooklyn. While the 10th is essentially an open seat contest this year, its incumbent is technically Mondaire Jones (NY-17). Jones, a black LGBT Democrat, left the redrawn 17th district after colleague and DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney announced he would be changing districts to primary him.

Other notable contenders for the 10th besides Jones include former NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, state Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, Councilmember Carolina Rivera, Attorney Dan Goldman, and ex-Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman. This race will ultimately be decided by the divide between the Manhattan and Brooklyn electorates. Whichever bloc is less fissured will probably prevail, though the Brooklyn section accounts for a greater portion of the total population.

Since this is only an adopted home base for Jones, there is a strong possibility that he ends up lacking the regional connections necessary to win the primary. Ultimately, the race that has shaped up in the 10th district is the type of contest where the favorite will not be assuredly known before the election.

NY-12

The most interesting Democratic double-bunking in the nation is taking place in the newly-drawn 12th district, which connected the Upper East and West sides for the first time in modern memory. Both of those NYC regions are represented by well-known, high-ranking Democrats who have been in Congress for over thirty years. These lawmakers are Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (East) and Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (West).

Even though Maloney’s territorial advantage gives her the edge on paper, Nadler has made clear that he will not go down without a fight. Available polling has been scarce, but it has all suggested a Tossup race in which Maloney would be narrowly favored. The final factor of note in this primary is Suraj Patel, a progressive candidate who nearly beat Maloney for the 2020 nomination. He does not stand a chance of winning without Brooklyn, but it will be worthwhile to see how much of the vote he garners in the end.

NY-17

In New York’s 17th, the Democratic primary field would have been completely unexpected just a few months ago. It all started when the Cervas map was sustained by the court, making DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney’s 18th district more competitive. Maloney decided to move south to the slightly-bluer, albeit still marginal, seat of Mondaire Jones. That move resulted in Jones shifting his ambitions down to Manhattan in the 10th district.

There is still bad blood between Maloney and some of his fellow Democrats, many of whom perceived his move as opportunistic, but he remains a favorite in his primary against state Senator Alessandra Biaggi. The daughter of a former Congressman, Biaggi is running against Maloney as a progressive despite living outside of the new 17th district, which we currently rate Leans Democratic. Back when the Hochulmander was still a political reality, Biaggi was a favorite to secure the Democratic nomination in a bay-crossing iteration of NY-03.

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