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Loss Leaders: When Voters Send Congressional Bosses Packing

Primary loss of Joseph Crowley just most recent example of electorate weighing in

Rep. Joseph Crowley’s primary loss wasn’t the first time a congressional leader had suffered an abrupt halt to his career. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Joseph Crowley’s primary loss wasn’t the first time a congressional leader had suffered an abrupt halt to his career. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

New York Rep. Joseph Crowley’s primary loss on Tuesday sent shock waves through the political system. But the House Democratic Caucus chairman’s defeat was far from the first time a congressional leader’s career has been abruptly halted by the voters.

It was just four years ago Virginia Republicans elevated a little-known economics professor named Dave Brat over Eric Cantor, the House majority leader. Like Crowley, Cantor was viewed as a strong contender to some day be speaker. These two men do represent something of a new trend, though: leaders losing primaries. The most recent examples of leaders losing has typically happened in the general election. 

Pelosi Praises Crowley and His Concession Following Primary Defeat

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Here’s a breakdown of the leaders who have seen the voters halt their leadership careers in the legislative branch. Of note: Despite dire predictions of leadership vacuums overtaking the party suffering the loss, someone always takes the defeated’s place.

Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y.

  • First Elected: 1998 general election
  • Highest Leadership Position: House Democratic Caucus Chairman
  • Electoral Loss: Primary, June 26, 2018, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
  • Replaced in Leadership Ranks by: ?

Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.

  • First Elected: 2000 general election
  • Highest Leadership Position: House Majority Leader
  • Electoral Loss: Primary, June 10, 2014, to Dave Brat
  • Replaced in Leadership Ranks by: Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

  • First Elected: House, 1978 general election; Senate, 1986 general election
  • Highest Leadership Position: Senate Majority Leader, but was Minority Leader at time of loss
  • Electoral Loss: General, November 2004, to Republican John Thune
  • Replaced in Leadership Ranks by: Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Rep. Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash.

  • First Elected: 1964 general election
  • Highest Leadership Position: Speaker of the House
  • Electoral Loss: General, November 1994, to Republican George Nethercutt
  • Replaced in Leadership Ranks by: Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.

Rep. John Brademas, D-Ind.

  • First Elected: 1958 general election
  • Highest Leadership Position: House Majority Whip
  • Electoral Loss: General, November 1980, to Republican John Hiler
  • Replaced in Leadership Ranks by: Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash.

Correction 4:45 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of Rep. John Brademas. 

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