Skip to content

Incumbent Primary Challengers: Some Promising, Others Premature

The 2014 primary season has begun with high-profile Democratic Senate primaries in Massachusetts and New Jersey. But they’re the tip of the iceberg in what promises to be a cycle of competitive, and possibly nasty, primaries in both parties.

Republicans face plenty of intraparty fights, including one in Kentucky where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces a challenge on his right flank. Conservatives aiming to knock off establishment GOP incumbents are most excited, however, about their prospects against Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, whom they see as fundamentally weak with a record they can pick apart.

Simpson, a dentist who served as speaker of the Idaho House before winning election to Congress in 1998, hasn’t had a serious primary or general-election challenge since his first race, when he defeated former Democratic Rep. Richard Stallings in an open-seat contest.

The Club for Growth has already endorsed attorney Bryan Smith in the primary. “Simpson has been in Congress forever, he’s an appropriator and prolific earmarker, and he voted for the [Troubled Asset Relief Program] bailout and for the 527 reform act,” said Andy Roth, the group’s vice president of government affairs.

Smith calls himself a “real conservative.” His website says he won’t support “ANY tax increase as a member of Congress and would not have supported the debt limit deal passed by Congress this year.” He also criticizes Simpson for opposing a libertarian amendment to end certain National Security Agency surveillance programs.

By most broad measures, Simpson is a conservative Republican. He has a lifetime AFL-CIO rating of 15 and lifetime rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of 92. He received an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association in 2012 and a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life that same year.

But National Journal rates him as only the 201st most conservative member of the House (fellow Idaho Republican Raúl R. Labrador rates as the 189th), making him comparable to Ohio’s Steve Stivers and Illinois’ Adam Kinzinger. In Idaho, that may not be conservative enough for Republican primary voters — especially for those who regard even one “wrong” vote a violation of principle.

After the Idaho race, the prospects for the other high-profile GOP primary challengers seem less certain.


Businessman Matt Bevin is challenging McConnell in the Kentucky GOP primary. But conservatives who are less than enthusiastic about McConnell don’t yet know whether Bevin, who has some personal resources to put into the race if he chooses, will run a strong enough campaign to threaten the minority leader’s renomination.

Even conservative critics of McConnell say he’s not unpopular among Republicans. And the senator had almost $9.6 million in the bank on June 30. In addition, the president and CEO of American Crossroads, Steven Law, is a former McConnell chief of staff.

Seeing how Rand Paul easily vanquished then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson in the GOP Senate primary last cycle, McConnell has worked to protect his right flank. He’s hired Jesse Benton, who ran campaigns for both Paul and his father, Ron Paul, to run his campaign. Rand Paul has already endorsed McConnell.

South Carolina

The initial reaction in some circles to a primary challenge to Sen. Lindsey Graham can only be described as premature.

Nancy Mace, a public relations company owner and one of the first women to graduate from the Citadel, got plenty of attention over the past week both in South Carolina and Washington when she announced her entry into the GOP primary. She becomes the second Republican hoping to deny renomination to Graham, but some insiders believe the field could grow and that a runoff could present Graham with problems.

Graham, who had $6.3 million in cash on hand on June 30, has been preparing for possible primary opponents. His reputation as a conservative who seeks compromise to get things done certainly assures that some Palmetto State Republicans will want to see him retired.

But political insiders who have already met Mace (I have not) have come away less than impressed.

“She is kind of JV,” one conservative told me, adding, “If she gets a good team around her, maybe she can elevate her game. But a debate with Lindsey Graham would be really tough for her.”

Other GOP Seats

There are other primaries already in the works, of course — Liz Cheney’s challenge to Sen. Michael B. Enzi in Wyoming is probably the most obvious — and others could develop, particularly in the House. But it’s equally noteworthy that two pragmatists, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Maine’s Susan Collins, have avoided serious primary challenges.


Democrats don’t have as many interesting primaries yet, but their Hawaii Senate nomination fight already looks like quite a battle. Appointed Sen. Brian Schatz has drawn a primary from Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a former president of the Hawaii Senate. Polls suggest that the race starts off as very competitive, though they differ as to who has the upper hand.

Schatz, who served in the state legislature and as Democratic Party state chairman, was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to fill Daniel K. Inouye’s vacant seat after the nine-term Democrat died in December. Inouye made it clear that he wanted Abercrombie to appoint Hanabusa to fill the vacancy, and Inouye’s widow has endorsed the congresswoman.

Hanabusa has had a tough few weeks after the Washington Post reported that her campaign may have violated campaign finance laws prohibiting “coordination” between an independent expenditure effort and a candidate’s campaign.

Schatz’s financial advantage — $1.6 million in the bank on June 30 to Hanabusa’s $650,000 — comes primarily from his huge haul in political action committee money. But the congresswoman has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, and she should raise enough money to be competitive.

The only elected senator from Hawaii of European ancestry was Oren Long, who won a 1959 special election after Hawaii became a state. He did not seek re-election in 1962.

Correction 11:15 am |

Recent Stories

Vance’s ascension solidifies isolationist faction of GOP

Biden tests positive for COVID, cancels event

Vance quietly tried to shape public health agenda in Congress

Schiff urging Biden to quit race shows issue is not going away

Fact-checking Day 2 of the Republican National Convention

Count the contradictions: Brow-furrowing moments from GOP convention