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How Scared Should House Freshmen Be Of Threats To Primary Them?

Since winning office in 2018, first-term Democrats New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib have garnered a lot of attention — for their political talents, for their policy stances and for their willingness to break with the party’s usual talking points, sometimes to the chagrin of some of their fellow Democrats. Now, some in the party are reportedly already talking about recruiting primary challengers to take them on. But how worried do they need to be?

House freshmen who lost primaries since 2000

Name Party State Year lost
Kerry Bentivolio R Michigan ’14
Hansen Clarke D Michigan ’12
Sandy Adams R Florida ’12
Ben Quayle R Arizona ’12
Parker Griffith R* Alabama ’10
David Davis R Tennessee ’08
Joe Schwarz R Michigan ’06
Chris Bell D Texas ’04
Brian Kerns R Indiana ’02

*Griffith switched parties while in office. He won the seat as a Democrat and then lost the Republican primary two years later.

Sources: Greg Giroux, Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

The stereotypical primary challenger is a young upstart facing a longtime incumbent, but I was curious how common it is for freshly minted incumbents to be ousted by a successful primary challenger after serving only one term. It turns out, it happens more often than I expected. Using Bloomberg reporter Greg Giroux’s database of members of Congress who were defeated for renomination, I found that nine freshman representatives have lost primary challenges since the 2000 election.1 Granted, that’s out of 626 total freshmen who served between 1999 and 2018,2 which means their rate of defeat was only 1.4 percent. That sounds low — and it is — but remember that it’s very rare for incumbents to lose primaries, period. Only 49 House incumbents of any tenure lost their primaries during this span, period — or, in other words, about 1.1 percent of all representatives. This means first-termers have historically been a bit more vulnerable, which makes some sense intuitively, as they are generally less established and haven’t had time to build the local relationships and fundraising networks that underpin a truly intimidating incumbency advantage.

But a closer look at the freshman incumbents who lost renomination suggests that Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib (in addition to this session’s 82 other House freshmen) can probably rest a little easier: Unusual circumstances contributed to seven of the nine previous losses.

Right off the bat, five of the losses can be explained by redistricting throwing the first-term incumbents into new districts. In fact, former Reps. Sandy Adams of Florida, Hansen Clarke of Michigan and Ben Quayle of Arizona in 2012 and Brian Kerns of Indiana in 2002 were all forced to run in primaries against other incumbents, according to Giroux’s data. Quayle even ran against a fellow first-term incumbent, so obviously one of them had to lose. Mid-decade redistricting in Texas pushed then-Rep. Chris Bell into a more racially diverse district where half of the voters were new to him, and he lost to now-Rep. Al Green. This is not a likely outcome for most of the House freshmen seeking re-election, but with pending legal challenges to congressional maps in Maryland and North Carolina, it’s not impossible.

Nor are many House Democrats likely to switch parties by 2020, which was likely the downfall of former Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith in 2010. First elected as a Democrat, he switched to the GOP halfway through his term, then lost the Republican primary the following year. As this happened at the height of the conservative tea party movement, it’s probable that Griffith’s Democratic past was a deal-breaker for GOP voters, who opted for die-hard conservative Mo Brooks instead.

The final easily-explained-away case is a truly unusual one. In spring 2012, Kerry Bentivolio was just a quixotic primary challenger to incumbent Rep. Thaddeus McCotter in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District — but then McCotter failed to turn in enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, leaving Bentivolio the only Republican candidate on the ballot. The seat was red enough that Bentivolio won the general election despite revelations of scandal and bizarre behavior. Given a mulligan two years later, the GOP establishment took no chances and closed ranks behind businessman Dave Trott, who trounced Bentivolio in the 2014 primary.

That leaves just former Reps. David Davis of Tennessee and Joe Schwarz of Michigan, who each lost on an apparently even playing field. In 2006, now-Rep. Tim Walberg defeated Schwarz in an ideologically driven Republican primary: Schwarz was a pro-choice moderate, and Walberg ran as a social conservative with major financial backing from Michigan Right to Life and proto-tea-party group the Club for Growth. But the reason for now-Rep. Phil Roe’s defeat of Davis in 2008 is less clear; Roe ran as a staunch conservative, but Davis was conservative as well. The secret to Roe’s success appears to have been strong fundraising and attacking Davis over anything and everything.

But there is one thing that Davis and Schwarz had in common that probably sheds light on whether any current House freshmen are in danger of losing primaries in 2020: They both looked weak in their first election. Specifically, both won their first terms by prevailing with only a small plurality in the primary. Davis took first place in a 13-candidate field with just 22 percent of the vote, and Schwarz won with 28 percent in a six-person race. So when they faced a single main opponent two years later, the challengers — in both cases, one of the losers of the original primary — were able to unify people who had voted for someone else in the previous primary, and the incumbents proved vulnerable.

Tlaib is starting from a similar position, as she won her 2018 primary with a bare 31 percent plurality with five other Democrats on the ballot. If, say, former Rep. Brenda Jones, who finished second to Tlaib in the 2018 primary, ran and was able to consolidate the African American vote in Michigan’s historically black 13th District, Tlaib could potentially be vulnerable. But except in unusual scenarios like hers (and a few cases of redistricting), there isn’t a lot of precedent for House members to be toppled in their first primary as an incumbent.

From ABC News:

Sen. Kamala Harris on fellow Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib


  1. Giroux’s data goes back as far as 1968, but I only looked at 2000 onward to stick to a more recent political context.

  2. This total includes some freshmen who were sworn in too late to be primaried in their first term and some who replaced other freshmen in the middle of the term.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.