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You Asked: How hard is it to defeat an incumbent in a primary?

On Patreon (really, go support us on Patreon), we ask supporters to occasionally toss questions over to us that they want answered that are a little bit harder to get an answer to than something you might ask on Quora. For this, the fourth piece in our new series You Asked, everyone is suddenly interested in primary challenges for some reason.

I’ve seen a lot of people talking about ousting the “Hateful Eight” and I’m curious: how hard is it to defeat an incumbent in a primary?

Background: Who are the “Hateful Eight?”

In 2015, Quentin Tarantino Tarantino’d some American history as he likes to do and created The Hateful Eight. This has nothing to do with anything except that someone noticed that eight Democratic senators voted to keep a minimum wage increase out of the COVID-19 relief bill last week.

The eight are:

  • Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
  • Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V.
  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
  • Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.
  • Sen. Angus King, I-Maine
  • Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.
  • Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
  • Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.

King, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), caucuses as a Democrat, and we’re going to call him a Democrat for this article’s purposes, although obviously we’ll also talk about the issue with primary challenges against unenrolled candidates in a bit.

The eight senators had different reasons for opposing the measure. Likely the most important one is Sen. Manchin, who supports a considerably smaller minimum wage increase than the one championed by Sanders and other progressive Democrats. Manchin, it would appear, would vote against a $15 minimum wage no matter what.

That’s absolutely too bad, because while some memes might make you think this was going to go into effect right away, the language of the proposal enacted a $15 minimum wage by 2025. It’s hard to argue that, in four years, a $15 minimum wage wouldn’t be reasonable since it’s already reasonable now.

Most of the others raised concerns about overriding the nonpartisan Senate parliamentarian who had ruled that the minimum wage provision doesn’t really meet the standards for the budget reconciliation process. I’m personally more sympathetic to this, as I think that overriding the parliamentarian is not ideal and that adding a minimum wage increase that wouldn’t go into full effect for years has nothing to do with COVID-19 relief, something Sen. Sinema noted in a statement explaining her vote.

Let’s say, though, that you want Sinema, Manchin, and the other six out of there. How hard is it to replace them with more progressive-minded Democrats?

Extremely

Rep. Henry Cuellar is a conservative Democrat known for his close relationship with the NRA. Challenged by a progressive, Jessica Cisneros, in 2020, he won a narrow but still definitive victory. Overall, progressive primary challengers in 2020 performed poorly, and that’s not that unusual. In either party, incumbents enjoy an advantage over primary challengers.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the star of the primary challenge movement when she defeated Joe Crowley in 2018. Ocasio-Cortez made the campaign personal, focusing on a common view that Crowley was not present in the district he represented. When Crowley sent a representative to a debate instead of showing up in person, he played into Ocasio-Cortez’s argument, leading the New York Times to worry that “he’d better hope that voters don’t react to his snubs by sending someone else to do the job.” That is, of course, exactly what they did.

But it’s important to keep in mind how much of that campaign was about Crowley’s behavior and not necessarily his political positions. Ocasio-Cortez hammered Crowley on his lack of responsiveness to issues in New York City and that resonated with voters. Voters tend to view their members of Congress individually, considering them on their record rather than their beliefs. It’s one of the reasons why deeply unpopular Susan Collins won her 2020 re-election bid in Maine: voters credited Collins with significant infrastructure and economic boosts in the state and separated her from the rest of her party.

There’s a reasons some of these folks are in office

Joe Manchin is not a popular Democrat nationally but, in his home state of West Virginia, he’s well-loved. West Virginia political observer Hoppy Kercheval told Politico in 2018 that Manchin “doesn’t campaign as a Democrat. He campaigns as Joe Manchin.” It echoes Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Crowley: politics are local. If you don’t show up, you’re out. If you show up and you deliver what your constituents want, the color of your party flag doesn’t matter. Republicans turn out to back Manchin in a way they wouldn’t turn out for a more progressive Democrat – at least, not one who hadn’t earned their trust the way he has. It makes a primary challenge difficult. As Mike Plant, a West Virginia-based Democratic consultant, explained in that same Politico piece, “Those kinds of progressive voters in West Virginia tend to be higher-information voters, so they understand the calculation of what their vote means. And while they may be upset with them about the Kavanaugh vote, or this vote, or that vote, they also realize the alternative is much worse from their political perspective.”

Facing an almost-certain general election challenge from her state’s popular Republican governor, Sen. Maggie Hassan had to chose her line carefully on the minimum wage hike. Like her counterpart Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Hassan noted that the $15 minimum wage just isn’t popular in New Hampshire as it is nationwide. Democrats in the state’s legislature tried to push the minimum wage to $12 twice, and Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed both efforts. Polls this year show Sununu beating Hassan in 2022. A primary challenger would need to prove that they could beat Sununu from Hassan’s left, which is a tall order in New England’s most conservative state.

And what about Sen. Sinema, whose anime schoolgirl antics inspired such vitriol on social media? First of all, it’s worth remembering that The New Republic ran an article called “Call Kyrsten Sinema’s Bluff” in which it insisted that she would not actually do the thing she ultimately did. No, no, The New Republic said, “Hundreds of thousands more Arizonans voted to raise the minimum wage than to make Kyrsten Sinema a senator. The idea that she would sink a proposal to do the same on procedural grounds should make no political sense at all.”

There might be some truth to that: Sinema certainly will face frustrated Arizonians for her vote. But not super-frustrated, since Arizona’s minimum wage is $12.15 – that’s the vote to raise the minimum wage alluded to in the piece. The minimum wage there will increase with the cost of living, too. It’s already higher than the COVID-19 relief bill would have made it and it could theoretically outpace the proposed $15 minimum wage by 2025, since it’s tied to cost of living. Sinema knows that her voters are less likely to care about the minimum wage increase than other provisions of the bill.

Sen. Angus King easily fought off a challenge by Zak Ringelstein in 2018. King is an independent, which means he doesn’t face a primary; the only way to challenge King as a Democrat is to secure the party’s nomination and square off in the general election which, in Maine, is by ranked-choice instant runoff. Despite the use of this system, King won 54.3% in the first ballot. Ringelstein won just 10.5%, coming in third behind King and Republican Eric Brakey.

It takes money

Attorney Bre Kidman sought the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat in Maine in 2020. Kidman wasn’t challenging an incumbent; they were running in an open primary. Kidman sought to run a different kind of campaign, one that eschew big donors and used campaign funds to make a difference in local communities. They were able to make effective use of campaign funds to help with coronavirus relief when the pandemic hit. But, ultimately, they didn’t win the nomination.

Kidman was up against well-funded opponents, including eventual nominee Sara Gideon. It would have been even harder if they were fighting a well-funded incumbent. Loose campaign finance laws let outside parties pour money into elections to support candidates and those outside parties love incumbents because incumbents have a voting record and, often, a track record of providing help to the same people who cut fundraising checks. It takes around $10 million to win a seat in either house of Congress and that’s money that is rarely available to primary challengers.

What else can we do?

None of this is to say that it’s impossible to defeat an incumbent in a primary, but it’s certainly difficult. And being upset about one vote is not necessarily going to matter; Sinema faces re-election in 2024, when voters will be more concerned about the presidential election and the possible return of Donald Trump. Hassan’s primary will be about the risk of Sununu. Manchin is apparently untouchable, and his term ends in 2024, too.

Primary challenges seem like a good threat. But incumbents know they require a ton of work. What else could we do?

Well, one option is to focus on seats that Democrats don’t control. Pennsylvania’s Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is seeking the seat currently held by Republican Pat Toomey, who is retiring. Fetterman is a big supporter of minimum wage increases and also is just big. More Democrats in the Senate dilutes the power of moderates like Manchin and Sinema.

Another is to pursue more state action like Arizona’s minimum wage hike. Voters have shown a willingness to enact minimum wage hikes at the ballot box. Even some staunchly red states like Florida have passed minimum wage hikes this way.

And abolishing the filibuster would mean that a federal minimum wage bill could be passed with just majority support, which is how it works in basically every other country. The 60-vote rule in the Senate keeps it from doing anything while in most countries a simple majority is enough to pass legislation. The effects are obvious, as the U.S. lags its peers in some of the basic tenets of democratic participation. Voters don’t think the Senate does anything, so they don’t think it matters who sits in it, and election turnout suffers. This, incidentally, benefits Republicans greatly.

Primary challenges feel like a good threat against politicians who don’t vote your way. But there are better things we can do – things that might actually work.

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