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Past service in Congress no indicator of future success

Many former members losing in primaries, and losing big

Former Rep. Abby Finkenauer tried to follow her loss in Iowa's 1st District 2020 with a run for Senate, but was defeated by 15 points in the June 7 Democratic primary.
Former Rep. Abby Finkenauer tried to follow her loss in Iowa's 1st District 2020 with a run for Senate, but was defeated by 15 points in the June 7 Democratic primary. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As former Reps. Corrine Brown and Alan Grayson prepare to face off in a crowded Democratic primary in Florida’s 10th District, they’d better hope they do better than a batch of other former members who have failed in their comeback attempts. 

More than a handful of former House members and U.S. senators are running again for Congress or statewide office. But nearly halfway through the primary calendar, the vast majority have lost — and most haven’t even come close. 

The highest-profile failed comeback was probably in Georgia, where former Sen. David Perdue was trounced by Gov. Brian Kemp, 74 percent to 22 percent, in the GOP primary for governor. Perdue’s drubbing happened even with the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. 

Former Rep. Abby Finkenauer started as the front-runner in the Democratic race to challenge GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley in Iowa. She eventually surrendered her early lead after being outspent dramatically on television, and she lost the nomination by 15 points, 55 percent to 40 percent, to retired Vice Adm. Mike Franken.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine received plenty of criticism for his handling of COVID-19, but former Rep. Jim Renacci didn’t even come close to defeating him in the primary. DeWine prevailed by 20 points. Across the border in Pennsylvania, former Rep. Lou Barletta finished second in the GOP primary for governor, but that was more than 20 points behind state Sen. Doug Mastriano.

In North Carolina, former Rep. Renee Ellmers finished in fifth place with just 9.4 percent in the newly drawn 13th District. In Indiana’s 9th District, former Rep. Mike Sodrel finished a distant second with 26 percent in the open seat primary race to succeed Rep. Trey Hollingsworth.

Paul Broun finished in fourth place with 13.4 percent in the initial GOP primary in Georgia’s 10th District. That was more than 8 points shy of securing a slot in the runoff, which was just won by Mike Collins, son of former GOP Rep. Mac Collins. 

Last week in Nevada, former Sen. Dean Heller finished a disappointing third, with just 13.5 percent, in the Republican primary for governor. And former Rep. Cresent Hardy finished fourth in an eight-candidate field with just 11.8 percent in the GOP race to challenge Democratic Rep. Dina Titus in the 1st District. 

Democrat Kwanza Hall, who served briefly after replacing Democratic Rep. John Lewis in Georgia, lost a recent Democratic primary runoff for lieutenant governor, 63 percent to 37 percent.

Former Rep. Dennis Ross’ comeback attempt lasted less than three months. He cited “limited resources” as a reason why he didn’t even file to run in Florida’s 15th District. 

In California, former GOP Rep. George Radanovich’s political comeback failed in dramatic fashion. Not only did he finish third in the state Senate District 4 primary, but two Democrats finished first and second, meaning Republicans have no chance of holding a seat that Trump would have won by more than 5 points in 2020. Two Democrats divided 40 percent of the vote and will move on to the general election, while Radanovich and five other Republicans divided 59.5 percent of the vote. Radanovich was first elected to Congress in the 1994 wave and did not seek reelection in 2010. 

Some former members won, but only barely. In Montana, former Rep. Ryan Zinke had an underwhelming 41.7 percent to 39.8 percent primary victory in the new 1st District. It was a surprising outcome since Zinke previously represented the entire state before joining the Trump administration as Interior secretary.

The list of defeats and close calls could be explained away as a collection of circumstances unique to each race. Or there could be a common thread that relying too heavily on past experience is a losing proposition, and maybe there just isn’t an appetite among voters for retread politicians.

Looking ahead

A handful of former members still have the opportunity to buck the cycle’s trend. 

In some races, the primary is the most difficult race. 

Brown and Grayson are vying for an Orlando-area district left behind by Democratic Rep. Val B. Demings, who is challenging GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. But eight other Democrats are running in the Aug. 23 primary as well. 

In Maryland, former Rep. Donna Edwards is running in the 4th District, which is open because Rep. Anthony G. Brown is running for state attorney general. She faces former Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn Ivey, former state Del. Angela Angel and six others in the July 19 primary.

Eighty-year old former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman hasn’t served in Congress in more than 40 years but is running for New York’s 10th District this year. She faces Rep. Mondaire Jones, former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and a host of others in the Aug. 23 Democratic primary.  

In other places, the general election is the highest hurdle. 

Former Rep. Bruce Poliquin didn’t have trouble securing the GOP nomination in Maine’s 2nd District, but he’ll have a challenging general election race against Democratic Rep. Jared Golden. It’s one of the few rural districts that Democrats still control, and Golden has cultivated an independent image, but Poliquin should have the wind at his back in a race that Inside Elections rates a Toss-up.

Some former Democratic members were nominated easily but face very tough general elections, including Beto O’Rourke in the Texas gubernatorial race and Joe Cunningham in the South Carolina gubernatorial race. And Kendra Horn is uncontested in next week’s Democratic primary in Oklahoma for the remainder of  GOP Sen. James M. Inhofe’s term after he retires in January. 

Former Democratic Rep. Max Rose is likely to be the Democratic nominee in New York’s 11th District, but the final configuration of the redrawn district will make it difficult for him to take the seat back from GOP Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, who beat him in 2020 by more than 6 points. 

If he can win the GOP nomination, former GOP Rep. Matt Salmon has a good chance of getting elected governor of Arizona. But there’s no guarantee he gets past other credible candidates in the Aug. 2 primary. 

Because of their time on Capitol Hill and inside the Beltway, it can be easy to be biased toward members and former members when handicapping races. But the slate of former members struggling this cycle is a good reminder that being a former member doesn’t guarantee anything about the future, except a nice parking space at the Capitol complex.

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

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