With a competitive U.S. Senate race and the potential for two U.S. House upsets, Tuesday’s primary elections in Massachusetts represented the last significant chance for an incumbent member of Congress to lose his or her primary this year. It didn’t happen — Sen. Ed Markey defeated younger challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy III 55 percent to 45 percent, and the state’s U.S. representatives all survived their primaries as well.
But, Tuesday notwithstanding, 2020 has still seen an unusual amount of anti-incumbent sentiment. The more-or-less final tally: Eight members of the House of Representatives (and no U.S. senators) lost renomination in 2020. Out of the 380 House members who ran for reelection this year,1 that may not seem like a lot. (And it isn’t — incumbents have historically won their primaries at very high rates, and this year is no exception.) But it is an unusually high number by historical standards — it’s twice as many as in 2018 or in the tea party cycle of 2010.
Incumbents rarely lose their primaries
The number of U.S. House members who lost renomination, as a share of those seeking reelection, in elections since 1946
|Year||Seeking Reelection||Who Lost Renomination||Loss Rate|
It’s not unusual to see a lot of incumbents lose primaries in years ending in -2 because those are the first cycles after congressional redistricting, when incumbents are sometimes thrown into new districts with lots of voters who are unfamiliar with them. Sometimes, when the number of districts is reduced, incumbents are even forced to run against other incumbents, guaranteeing an incumbent loss. (But even in redistricting cycles, incumbents still win 95 percent of the time or more.)
But it is unusual to see a lot of incumbents lose in non-redistricting cycles like 2020, which have averaged only three incumbent losses since 1984.2 In fact, to find a non-redistricting year when as many incumbents lost renomination as in 2020, one would have to go back to 1974, which was a historic election in its own right. That year, eight sitting members of Congress also lost renomination as a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment swept the nation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
It’s tempting to say that the rash of incumbent losses in 2020 also means that anti-incumbent fever has reached Watergate-level highs. But it’s less clear that the eight incumbents who lost in 2020 all lost for the same reason. The circumstances of their elections were pretty unique, and the incumbent losses haven’t been limited to one party.
The eight House incumbents who lost renomination in 2020
|IL-03||March 17||D||Dan Lipinski||Marie Newman|
|IA-04||June 2||R||Steve King||Randy Feenstra|
|VA-05*||June 13||R||Denver Riggleman||Bob Good|
|NY-16||June 23||D||Eliot Engel||Jamaal Bowman|
|CO-03||June 30||R||Scott Tipton||Lauren Boebert|
|KS-02||Aug. 4||R||Steve Watkins||Jake LaTurner|
|MO-01||Aug. 4||D||Lacy Clay||Cori Bush|
|FL-15||Aug. 18||R||Ross Spano||Scott Franklin|
That said, all three Democratic incumbents who lost definitely can be lumped together: Reps. Dan Lipinski, Eliot Engel and Lacy Clay all faced younger, more progressive challengers. And these primaries are clearly the continuation of a trend that began in 2018, when now-Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley also defeated long-serving, older incumbents in their Democratic primaries. The same activist groups (e.g., Justice Democrats, Our Revolution) also endorsed all or most of the five challengers in these districts. What’s more, these districts are similar in that they are relatively racially diverse and urban, which partly explains progressives’ success here.
But progressive insurgents defeating establishment incumbents in Democratic primaries accounted for just three of the eight incumbent losses this year. Rather, what made 2020 stand out is the high number of Republican incumbents who lost in primaries. And on that front, it’s much harder to detect a pattern or conclude from that that anti-incumbent sentiment is rampant on the GOP side:
- Three Republican incumbents lost because they were facing scandals. Rep. Steve King of Iowa had his committee assignments taken away after suggesting that the terms “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” were nothing to be ashamed of — this following years of other racist comments. Rep. Steve Watkins of Kansas was charged with voter fraud a month before his primary and was also facing old accusations of unwanted sexual advances and inflating his résumé. And Rep. Ross Spano of Florida appeared to violate campaign-finance law in 2018 when he loaned his own campaign $167,000 around the time he borrowed a similar amount from friends, triggering a Justice Department investigation.
- One Republican incumbent, Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado, had something in common with the Democratic incumbents who lost: He was perceived as being out of step with the party zeitgeist. Although Tipton had Trump’s endorsement, his challenger, Lauren Boebert, hewed closer to Trump in tone. She became well known for her gun-themed restaurant where the servers are armed, and was able to argue successfully that Tipton wasn’t conservative enough. (It also helped that Tipton didn’t appear to take his primary seriously.)
- The final Republican incumbent, Rep. Denver Riggleman of Virginia, lost for kind of a hybrid of the two reasons above. He set off a mini-controversy in conservative circles when he officiated the same-sex wedding of two of his campaign volunteers, leading former Campbell County Supervisor Bob Good to primary him from the right. And Good was successful in large part because the Virginia GOP held a convention, not a primary, to decide their nominee in the 5th Congressional District, and convention goers tend to be the most ideological members of the party. But the fact that political insiders, not voters, engineered Riggleman’s defeat is another point against drawing too many conclusions from the fact that so many incumbents lost in 2020.
There is certainly a significant amount of grassroots energy among both Democrats and Republicans these days, but ultimately, the eight incumbents who lost in 2020 did not all fall victim to the same affliction. The number who lost for ideological reasons is five at most, and three were due to scandals that are probably best thought of as one-off occurrences.
However, every election in every cycle brings its own idiosyncrasies. For instance, even in 1974 there were unique circumstances, like one incumbent losing because he was under indictment on bribery charges. One fact is undeniable, however: Eight incumbents losing renomination is a lot, and turnover in the 117th Congress is noteworthy in and of itself, even if the underlying causes aren’t as clear.
CORRECTION (Sept. 3, 2020, 11:58 a.m.): A previous version of the photo caption in this article incorrectly identified Jamaal Bowman as congressman-elect. Bowman won the Democratic primary in New York’s 16th Congressional District, but the general election has yet to take place.