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Despite Lipinski loss, beating incumbents in primaries is rare

Illinois Democrat’s loss not a sign of national anti-incumbent sentiment

Don’t let Marie Newman’s victory fool you. It’s still extremely difficult to defeat an incumbent in a primary. For every Dave Brat, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and now Newman, there are hundreds (thousands, depending on how far you want to go back) of primary challengers who fall short.

Because the successful insurgents get so much attention, it can be easy to overlook all the losses. Just a few weeks ago, two House members from Texas, Democrat Henry Cuellar and Republican Kay Granger, turned back credible primary challengers.

Even though Newman defeated Rep. Daniel Lipinski in Illinois, it took her and a bevy of outside groups three years to do it, considering she lost to the congressman in the 2018 primary. And while progressive groups are claiming a mandate for their cause, Newman received a smaller percentage of the vote this year (47 percent) than she did two years ago (49 percent).

Still, she got about 1,800 more votes than last time, while Lipinski got nearly 2,800 fewer. That’s an accomplishment considering how difficult it can be to unseat an incumbent, particularly one who is paying attention. Louisiana Democrat Bill Jefferson survived a jungle primary and a general election in 2006, a year after the FBI found $90,000 hidden in his freezer. More recently, California Republican Duncan Hunter finished first in a 2018 top-two primary while under investigation, and won the general election under indictment.

Lipinski’s loss also shouldn’t be viewed as evidence of national anti-incumbent sentiment. Each cycle, a handful of members (out of 435) find themselves on the short end of a primary.

In 2018, it was Joe Crowley, Mike Capuano, Robert Pittinger and Mark Sanford. Chaka Fattah, Corrine Brown and Tim Huelskamp lost two years before that. In 2014, Eric Cantor, Kerry Bentivolio, Ralph Hall, John Tierney and “Kissing Congressman” Vance McAllister went down to defeat.

In 2012, primary losers included Silvestre Reyes, John Sullivan, and Jean Schmidt, who was in Washington, D.C., the night she lost her primary in Ohio. Al Wynn and Wayne Gilchrest lost primaries in Maryland in 2008. And Cynthia McKinney and Joe Schwarz lost primaries in 2006. Schwarz’s race was somewhat akin to Lipinski’s challenge this year. He was a moderate from Michigan who didn’t have an ideological home in the GOP.

I’m often asked to identify the next Joe Crowley or Eric Cantor. But projecting upset primary winners is difficult because there’s often sparse survey data and the challengers are largely ignored (including by the incumbent), in part because most primary challengers lose. Newman’s high-profile race is an exception, not the rule.

10 percent? or 51?

That said, there’s been enough surprise winners over the years for me to take primary challengers more seriously.

I actually met with another primary challenger in Illinois this cycle: Robert Emmons Jr. He was a young community organizer challenging Rep. Bobby Rush in the 1st District. Rush has been in office nearly as long as Emmons has been alive, and the congressman had not been raising much money. Emmons had a plan, specific points of contention with the congressman’s record, and he appeared to be putting together a credible ground game. It wasn’t hard to paint a picture of how a longtime congressman could be caught off-guard.

I’ve been covering races long enough to know Emmons was a long shot, and I wrote as much after our interview. “Primaries are often particularly difficult to handicap from the Beltway because it’s tough to gauge local dynamics. That’s why it’s easy to envision Emmons receiving 10 percent of the vote or receiving 51 percent, and maybe not anything in between.”

On Tuesday, Emmons received … 10 percent. Rush was renominated with 71 percent.

Considering one previously unsuccessful primary challenger to Rush went on to get elected to the U.S. Senate and serve two terms as president of the United States, I don’t consider my interview with Emmons a complete waste of time.

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Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

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