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House 2016: Incumbency Still Powerful in Primaries

On Tuesday night, scandal-drenched Rep. Chaka Fattah (D, PA-2) became the first House incumbent to lose a primary this year. History suggests a few others will join him, but only a few.

Since the end of World War II, there has never been a year where every single House member who sought another term won his or her party’s nomination. However, the vast, vast majority who want to be nominated again get nominated.

Table 1 shows the postwar history of House renominations. Overall, more than 98% of members who seek renomination get it each election.

Table 1: Renomination rates of U.S. House members, 1946-2014

Note: The 2014 total does not include former Rep. Vance McAllister (R, LA-5). He ran for reelection in 2014 and did not finish in the top two in Louisiana’s all-party “jungle primary.” In a way, he did not win renomination because he was not one of the two candidates who advanced to a runoff, but his situation isn’t quite comparable to other, more traditional incumbent primary losers.

Source: Vital Statistics on Congress, Crystal Ball research

To the extent that there have been years with higher-than-average numbers of incumbent primary losses, they have been in years that end with “2.” Those are the first elections held after decennial redistricting, so the number of incumbent losses can increase because two incumbents are thrown into the same district or incumbents have to deal with a large number of new constituents. Indeed, as we’ll describe in more depth below, mid-decade redistricting in Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia could contribute to some incumbent losses in primaries this year.

So far, eight states have held their House primaries, and Fattah is the only incumbent who has lost, so the incumbent record is 102/103, or about a 99% winning percentage. Again, this is very much in line with the postwar record, and despite a clear anti-establishment mood in American politics (mostly on the Republican side), there has not been a real increase in the number of incumbent primary losers in the last few cycles. However, there have been some weak performances: Six House members have won less than 60% of the vote, which can be a warning sign for incumbents. That includes Rep. Bill Shuster (R, PA-9), who came very close to losing on Tuesday, and Fattah, who didn’t even crack 35%. In 2014, 20 members finished with less than 60%, including the four renomination losers. That does not include states that use an all-party primary, like California and Washington. We’ll keep an eye on the list of sub-60% winners as a broader method of measuring incumbent weakness. But, again, incumbents who want to be renominated almost always are, and there’s little sign that is changing in a dramatic way.

As of now, 392* House incumbents are slated to run for another term. That’s slightly lower than the postwar average of 398 members running for another term in each election, and it could get lower if there are additional retirements or vacancies. Based on the postwar average, we would expect about a half-dozen members to lose renomination. So far, only Fattah has. Who else could lose?

First of all, at least one more incumbent appears guaranteed to lose. That’s because North Carolina Reps. Renee Ellmers (R) and George Holding (R) are now running against each other in the state’s redrawn Second District. The only reason we say “appears guaranteed” because there is a small possibility the map could be altered again before the primary, but assuming it isn’t, at least one will lose. And it’s possible both will lose, because there’s a third candidate in the primary: Greg Brannon, who unsuccessfully ran for a Republican Senate nomination in 2014 and earlier this year. The Tar Heel State could see additional turnover. First-term Rep. Alma Adams’ (D, NC-12) district was vastly reconfigured, and she’ll have to run in a contested primary in her-now Charlotte-based seat (this district used to snake from Greensboro to Charlotte but is now centered in the state’s largest city). Rep. Walter Jones (R, NC-3), a former hawk who has become more dovish in recent years, fought off a tough challenge from former George W. Bush administration official Taylor Griffin in 2014. Griffin is running again, and Marine veteran Phil Law is also in the race. Jones could benefit from split opposition, particularly because there will be no runoff for North Carolina House races this year (the state typically does have runoffs, although the threshold to avoid a runoff is 40%, not 50%). Other North Carolina primaries could potentially be interesting, too.

Redistricting is also potentially imperiling some Florida representatives. Reps. Corrine Brown (D, FL-5) and Dan Webster (R, FL-10) saw their districts dramatically redrawn. Though she’s still fighting in court to reverse the redistricting, Brown is running for reelection in her current district, which now runs from Jacksonville to Tallahassee from east to west instead of north (Jacksonville) to south (Orlando). Webster is now running for the open FL-11, which is being vacated by the retiring Rep. Rich Nugent (R). Both will have opponents. One other Florida primary to watch is in FL-23, where Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, is facing a well-funded challenger, attorney Tim Canova. It’s hard to say how hard Canova will ultimately push Schultz, but she has enemies on the left. Those looking for a stunning repeat of Eric Cantor’s primary loss in 2014 should keep an eye on this race.

In Virginia, redistricting pushed Rep. Randy Forbes (R, VA-4) to abandon his now very-Democratic district in favor of the swingy, Hampton Roads-based VA-2, where Rep. Scott Rigell (R) is retiring. Forbes’ main primary opponent is state Del. Scott Taylor.

Outside of states with new districts, there are some other possibilities. Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R, TN-4), an anti-abortion rights doctor who found himself in hot water after stories emerged that he had pressured a mistress — who was also a patient — to get an abortion, nearly lost in 2014, and he again faces a tough challenger in 2016, former Mitt Romney aide Grant Starrett.

While he is not in a traditional primary because of California’s top-two election system, Rep. Mike Honda (D, CA-17) faces a rematch with former Obama Administration official Ro Khanna (D). Honda and Khanna both advanced to the general election in 2014, and the incumbent only prevailed by four points. Honda is now facing ethical questions and Khanna only appears to be getting stronger. Honda is in real danger of losing to a fellow Democrat.

Other incumbents to watch include Reps. Doug Lamborn (R, CO-5) and Tim Huelskamp (R, KS-1), who have had weak primary performances in the past, and Rep. Doug Collins (R, GA-9), who is facing former Rep. Paul Broun (R), a failed Senate candidate in 2014. Another is Rep. Frank Guinta (R, NH-1) — more on him below.

There are other primary races that will emerge over the next several months. Again, history suggests that almost every incumbent who wants renomination will get it. But a few won’t, and chances are the list of losers will include a few of the names listed above.

House rating changes

After moving 14 House race ratings two weeks ago, all but one toward the Democrats, we’re making seven other changes this week. Four are positive for the Democrats, and three are positive for Republicans.

Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

Reps. David Joyce (R, OH-14) and Ryan Costello (R, PA-6) are both newer members of Congress — Joyce was first elected in 2012 and Costello was first elected in 2014 — and they both represent suburban districts that lean Republican, but not overwhelmingly so (Mitt Romney won both districts 51%-48% in 2012). They also both have fairly weak Democratic opponents who have raised almost no money. If either of these incumbents end up being in trouble, it will be a sign of a big Democratic wave. As for now, we see both districts as Safe Republican now instead of Likely Republican. We’re also making the same ratings change for Rep. Pat Meehan (R, PA-7). National Democrats’ preferred candidate, Bill Golderer, got blown out in a primary by 2014 nominee Mary Ellen Balchunis. Meehan beat Balchunis, who has raised hardly any money, by 24 points in 2014. Perhaps things get so bad for Republicans that we have to revisit this race as well, but for now it feels Safe for them. All three of these seats are the kinds of districts that Democrats really need to bring into the fold to build a durable House majority, and they’ve seemingly struck out in all three.

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R, MN-3) has had an easy go of it since his initial election in 2008 despite occupying a seat President Obama won by a point in 2012, but Democrats are gearing up to take him on, and they just scored a potentially strong recruit against him in state Sen. Terri Bonoff. We’re moving this race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican, and if Bonoff pulls the upset she’ll almost certainly have a weak GOP presidential nominee assisting her. Meanwhile, we’re bringing the seat of Rep. Mike Bost (R, IL-12) back onto the board at Likely Republican after his opponent, attorney C.J. Baricevic (D), outraised him in the first quarter of 2016. This southern Illinois district is ancestrally Democratic but is trending Republican: Bost should be OK but we’re going to keep an eye on this race.

The two boldest moves here are moving two Toss-ups to Leans Democratic: the open AZ-1, currently held by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D), who is now running for Senate, and NH-1, held by embattled Rep. Frank Guinta (R).

In AZ-1, a very swingy district with a Republican lean, Democrats benefit from having just a single candidate, former state Sen. Tom O’Halleran, who used to be a Republican. The GOP, meanwhile, has a crowded field filled with potentially problematic candidates, like controversial Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu (R) and state House Speaker David Gowan (R). National Republicans seem to like state Sen. Carlyle Begay (R), who recently switched parties, but he hasn’t raised much money. A divisive, late Republican primary helped Kirkpatrick hang on to the seat in 2014, and the same thing could happen in 2016.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, NH-1 could be headed for the fourth-straight matchup between Guinta and ex-Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D). Shea-Porter first won the seat in the 2006 wave, then lost it to Guinta in the Republican wave of 2010. Shea-Porter won it back in 2012, and then Guinta reclaimed it in 2014. Guinta has been under fire all cycle after he reached a settlement with the Federal Election Commission in a matter involving him taking improper campaign contributions from his parents during his 2010 campaign. Several Republicans, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte, have called on him to resign, but Guinta is trying to weather the storm. He very well could lose his primary against state Rep. Pam Tucker and businessman Rich Ashooh, although split fields can sometimes benefit the incumbent. Meanwhile, Shea-Porter is locked in an increasingly nasty primary with businessman Shawn O’Connor, who has threatened to sue Shea-Porter and the state Democratic Party for what he describes as a whisper campaign accusing him of domestic violence. Needless to say, this isn’t endearing O’Connor to the party leadership.

Ultimately, we’ve heard complaints for years about Guinta from Republicans and Shea-Porter from Democrats. However, we think Guinta looks significantly weaker than Shea-Porter at this point, and, more importantly, we think either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz could be a significant drag in this swingy district. So we see a small advantage for the Democrats.

These changes in AZ-1 and NH-1 are fairly tentative, which gets at a larger point. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the House battle is clearly tilting to the Democrats. Yes, there does seem to be some movement in their direction driven by the presidential race, but the Republicans remain fairly big favorites to hold the House. Just to put it in perspective, Republicans now have 227 seats Safe, Likely, or Leaning to them, while Democrats have 190 Safe/Likely/Leaning to them, and there are 18 Toss-ups. Split those down the middle, and the House would be 236-199 Republican, for a net Democratic gain of 11 seats. Democrats need to net 30 to win the majority. However, if a wave develops thanks to the top of the ticket, it might not emerge until much closer to Election Day. So, again: The GOP majority seems fairly secure but the Democrats have a shot if they catch a lot of breaks.

By the way, of 435 House seats, 383 of them are rated as Safe for one party or the other (207 Republican seats and 176 Democratic ones). While there will be more competitive general election contests than primaries, the vast majority of House incumbents will be equally safe in both their primary and general election contest.

*This number has been corrected — it was initially reported as 391.