Candidates who lose close House races are often motivated to run again. When they do, their high name recognition, strong fundraising connections, and tested campaign infrastructures tend to give them an advantage over primary opponents. Support from national party committees like the NRCC and DCCC can also be decisive in consolidating would-be crowded primary fields, especially when the returning challenger is a former incumbent.
To identify how well candidates seeking returns to office actually perform, Split Ticket analyzed returning challengers’ performances relative to normalized expectations in 46 rematches between 2008 and 2020. Note that the loser of the first election is always counted as the challenger, regardless of prior incumbency status.
Our findings suggest that the GOP renominates weaker House candidates more frequently than the Democratic Party does in rematch elections. Although challengers in 30 of the 46 total rematches were Republicans, 63% of them underperformed in their rematches while 56% of Democrats in the same position improved the second time around, showing greater Democratic candidate strength across cycles.
The divergence in average shift among both parties’ challengers is even more instructive. The median Democratic challenger saw a improvement of 0.5 points in margin in the rematch, while the median Republican challenger posted a 1.3 point decline.
A growing asymmetric partisan focus on electability is the primary explanation for this divergence. As covered earlier, poor candidate quality is not a new problem for Republicans. Its effects have swayed battleground Senate races for more than a decade and were on full display in 2022, when GOP primary electorates influenced by ex-President Trump’s endorsements selected suboptimal Senate nominees in multiple states. While the high-profile nature of Senate races makes underperformance more visible, our past work suggests that the swing-seat underperformance problem extends to the House as well.
Several of the “rematch Republicans” confirm that nominating weak House candidates is not a recent problem for the GOP. Stretching back to 2010, lower-quality Republican challengers like Andy Harris (MD-01) won rematches despite underperforming relative to their previous elections. This can be attributed to a friendlier political climate. Between 2008 and 2010, the national environment swung 14-points rightward per Split Ticket’s SHAVE modeling, generating an enormous wave that floated many subpar GOP candidates into Congress.
Candidate effects played a particularly-pronounced role in 2020 rematches. For example, Claudia Tenney (R, NY-22) closely aligned herself with Trump, and won by a mere 109 votes in a Trump +11 seat. She ultimately did 5 points worse than she had done against Anthony Brindisi in 2018, post-SHAVE adjustment. A repeated WAR underperformer, her successful rematch was nearly wholly attributable to a friendlier environment. Tenney, an archetype for lower-quality GOP nominees, contrasts sharply against well-received Republicans like Young Kim (CA-39) and Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27), who won rematches while overperforming relative to their prior elections.
Don Bacon (NE-02) and John Katko (NY-24), two Republican incumbents who both held seats that Joe Biden concurrently won by a comfortable margin, also served as GOP bulwarks against repeat challengers Kara Eastman and Dana Balter, respectively. Additionally, there was no complementary blue wave large enough to seat the unsuccessful Democratic rematch challengers, who were already only about half as likely as Republican ones to even win renomination.
Rematches and the 2024 House Control Outlook
With multiple seats already poised to host competitive rematches in 2024, recurring candidates are expected to play a decisive role in determining whether House Republicans can maintain their narrow majority. Some examples include Adam Frisch’s rematch against controversial incumbent Lauren Boebert in Colorado’s 3rd district and Josh Riley’s challenge to GOP incumbent Marc Molinaro in New York’s 19th. If the national environment next fall proves to be more friendly to Democrats, the party’s demonstrated strength in rematch elections will be another factor filling their sails to a potential retaking of the House of Representatives.
To control for the effects of state-level political environments between cycles the difference in House margin relative to state SHAVE was taken, isolating candidate effects. For example, in 2014, Congressman Bob Dold (R, IL-10) sought reelection after losing his seat, beating his margin from 2012 by 4 points. This alone would suggest that he performed better as a challenger. However, by considering the change in Illinois’ partisan environment between the two years, it is revealed that relative to the statewide R +8 swing, Dold only managed a R +4 swing. Taking the difference of these two figures revealed that Dold fell short of his expected gain in margin by 4%.
To ensure consistency of measurement, we only considered sets of elections that happened under the same exact district lines (meaning matchups affected by redistricting were not considered).