Ousting an incumbent Congressman or Congresswoman in a primary is usually very, very difficult.
The incumbent is almost always better known than the challenger, is almost always better funded, and can usually count of extensive support from the local and state parties and powerful interest groups. Even unpopular incumbents can often survive primaries when too many challengers run against them and split the anti-incumbent vote. (Dubbed the Clown Car Effect at Daily Kos Elections). Would-be challengers often decide to not run rather than wage a very uphill primary battle. When an incumbent looks doomed, he or she may also choose to retire rather than lose.
However, forty-four unlucky Representatives managed to fall between 1992 and now. (And one even lost her seat twice). Some were cursed with a dramatically redrawn district. Some were ideologically out of sink with primary voters. One was accused of murder. But all soon achieved a rarity in American politics: losing a primary as an incumbent.
The following is a look at members of the House of Representatives who were unseated in primaries between 1992 and up till now in 2012. Only races where a challenger unseated a House member are included: member versus member primaries and Senate primaries feature different dynamics and are worthy of their own analysis. Much of the information is from previous editions of the Almanac of American Politics: the 1998 through 2010 Almanacs can be found online here.
Now, let's begin our journey back in time below the fold. This story begins in the unforgettable year of 1992. The laser disk was advanced technology. The Simpsons season 3 taught us how to laugh. And fifteen Congressmen were nervously eying their primaries...
1992: No electoral cycle in recent memory was like 1992. Between redistricting, the House Banking Scandal, and a more anti-incumbent environment than usual, fifteen House members were unseated. By contrast, only eleven Congressmen lost their primaries from 1994-2000.
Bill Alexander, Democrat- Arkansas's 1st District (Northeastern Arkansas), first elected 1968.
Alexander pulled off pretty weak reelections in 1986 and 1990 and his troubles were only beginning. In 1991 he was hit by a lawsuit over his $308,000 debt, and he was drawing scrutiny over his business associations. Alexander's 487 overdrafts from the House Bank were the final nail in the coffin. Alexander faced Blanche Lambert (later Lincoln), a former receptionist in his office. Lambert attacked him over his check-bouncing a won 61%-39%, ending Alexander's long career. Lambert won the seat in the general and later represented the state for two terms in the Senate.
Beryl Anthony, Democrat- Arkansas's 4th District (Southern Arkansas), first elected 1978.
Anthony was long known as a Congressional insider, which was not an asset in 1992. Anthony had 109 overdrafts from the House Bank and had voted for his own pay raise. Anthony faced Bill McCuen, the relatively unknown Secretary of State, who benefited from the NRA's attacks on Anthony. McCuen narrowly won the primary runoff 51%-49%, but his own ethics problems cost the Democrats this seat in the general election.
Bob Lagomarsino, Republican- California's 22nd District (San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara), first elected 1974.
Lagomarsino was a well-respected Congressman, but saw his reelection endangered by redistricting. Lagomarsino's base in Ventura County was thrown into the same district as his friend and fellow Congressman Elton Gallegly. Rather than run against Gallegly, Lagomarsino chose to move into the new 22nd district, but a Republican was already running there. Rich businessman Michael Huffington refused to leave the race despite pleas from GOP leaders and outspent Lagomarsino six to one. Huffington attacked Lagomarsino as a tired politician and accused him of voting to sell surveillance equipment to China that was used against the Tiananmen Square protesters. Huffington won 49%-43%, and won the seat in November. However, Lagomarsino may have gotten the last laugh. Huffington vacated the seat to run against Senator Dianne Feinstein in 1994 and narrowly lost; Lagomarsino provided the Feinstein campaign with copies of Huffington's old press releases and videotapes.
Charles Floyd Hatcher, Democrat- Georgia's 2nd District (Southwestern Georgia), first elected 1980.
Redistricting and the House Banking scandal helped end Hatcher's career in the House. He found himself running in a district that was 40% new to him, and was hurt by revelations about his 819 0verdrafts. State Senator Sanford Bishop defeated the incumbent 53%-47%, and still represents the district.
Ben Jones, Democrat- Georgia's 10th District (Augusta, Athens), first elected 1988.
Ben Jones, perhaps best known as Cooter from The Dukes of Hazzard TV show, was a victim of redistricting. The state legislature dismantled Jones' district and left him with no good place to run. Jones chose to run in the 10th against State Senator Don Johnson, who had played a major role in drawing the district. Jones' base in metro Atlanta was not nearly large enough to save him, and he was defeated 53%-30%. Johnson's own tenure in the House would be short, and he lost in the 1994 GOP wave. Jones ran that year against soon to be Speaker Newt Gingrich and lost badly. In 2002 Jones, now living in Virginia, tried to return to the House by unseating Eric Cantor but didn't come close.
Charles Hayes, Democrat- Illinois' 1st District (Southside of Chicago, suburbs), first elected 1983.
Hayes saw his district expanded by redistricting into areas he was not well known; he faced a competitive challenge from alderman and former Black Panther Bobby Rush. Rush attacked Hayes as ineffective and questioned his zeal, but was the clear underdog for most of the campaign. However, days before the primary, revelations about Hayes' 716 overdrafts from the House Bank came to light. Hayes didn't handle the matter well, defending his actions saying, "everyone did it." The scandal likely made all the difference: Rush narrowly won 42%-39%. In 2000, Rush easily turned back a primary challenge from State Senator Barack Obama, becoming the only person to defeat Obama in an election.
Gus Savage, Democrat- Illinois' 2nd District (Southside of Chicago, suburbs), first elected 1980.
Gus Savage may be the worst Congressman in recent memory. He was well known for his blatant anti-Semitism, corruption, and attempted rape. Savage never won more than 52% of the vote in a primary, often only surviving because anti-Savage candidates split the vote enough to reelect him. Mel Reynolds lost to Savage in 1990 but never stopped running. The district was expanded in 1992 to include more suburban voters who would not support the incumbent. Savage gambled that these people would vote in the GOP primary and he concentrated on winning Chicago. The race became incredibly nasty: Reynolds was injured in a drive-by shooting during the campaign. While he did not blame Savage for it, he attacked Savage's rhetoric for inspiring the shooting. Reynolds ended Savages' career 63%-37%, winning 4-1 in the suburbs. Savage showed little signs of contrition, saying, "We have lost to the white racist press and to the racist reactionary Jewish misleaders." Reynolds’ own career in the House would be short: he resigned in 1995 after being convicted of sexual harassment among other charges.
Dick Nichols, Republican- Kansas' 4th Congressional District (Wichita), first elected 1990.
Redistricting ended Dick Nichols’ short career in the House. Nichols' old fifth district was eliminated and Nichols moved into the fourth district to run against incumbent Democrat Dan Glickman. However, State Senator Eric Yost was already running and wasn't about to leave the race. Yost attacked Nichols' move into the district as the type of thing everyone hated about politicians, and easily won 45%-34%. Glickman defeated Yost in November.
Carroll Hubbard, Democrat- Kentucky's 1st District (Southwest Kentucky), first elected 1974.
Carroll Hubbard was hurt by his 152 House Bank overdrafts, as well as other problems. Hubbard was an ally of special interests, which was a liability in the anti-incumbent climate. Hubbards' wife was also running for Congress in another district, which did not help things. Hubbard faced Thomas Barlow, who had won an unimpressive 20% against Hubbard in 1986. However, the combination of Hubbards' problems was enough to make Barlow more competitive, and he won 48%-45%. Barlow only served one term before losing in the 1994 GOP wave; Hubbard later served time in Federal prison. Since his release Hubbard has resumed running for office, narrowly losing a race for Kentucky State Senate in 2006 and losing again in 2008. He is now the Democratic nominee for the State Senate again.
Beverly Byron, Democrat- Maryland's 6th District (Western Maryland), first elected 1978.
Conservative Democrat Beverly Byron had long won reelection in this district, and looked set to defeat Republican Roscoe Bartlett. However, she attracted a strong primary challenge from Delegate Thomas Hattery. Hattery attacked Byron from the left, calling for a middle-class tax cut, national health insurance, and emphasizing his pro-choice views. Hattery further went after Byron for voting to raise her own pay and for taking paid foreign trips. Hattery also had some powerful friends, receiving support from unions and environmental groups. Hattery defeated Byron 56%-44%, but could not hold the conservative district in November against Bartlett.
Chester Atkins, Democrat- Massachusetts' 5th District (Lowell, Lawrence), first elected 1984.
Chester Atkins was undone by a combination of redistricting, the House Banking scandal, and his own unpopularity. Atkins had won only 52% in 1990, with Lawrence and Lowell voting against him. Atkins was damaged by his inability to save the local Fort Devens; he also managed to alienate his former allies in the legislature. When it came time to redraw the district, legislative leaders deliberately kept Lawrence and Lowell while swapping Atkins' strong areas for ones where he was not known. Atkins' 127 overdrafts and pay raise vote made his bad situation even worse. Marty Meehan easily defeated Atkins 65%-35% and won the seat.
Guy Vander Jagt, Republican- Michigan's 2nd District (Western Michigan), first elected 1966.
Guy Vander Jagt was a very powerful Congressman, serving as the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee for eighteen years and a key ally of Gerald Ford. However, he lacked much of a presence in his district and was hurt by a taxpayer-funded trip to Barbados. When redistricting changed Vander Jagt's district, he faced businessman Pete Hoekstra. Hoekstra framed himself as an earnest Washington outsider, biking through the district calling for twelve-year term limits and promising to reject PAC spending. Hoekstra's outsider status proved to be what voters were looking for that year; he defeated Vander Jagt 46%-40%. Hoekstra served in the House for eighteen years, much longer than his proposed term limits would allow him, and is running for Senate now.
Stephen Solarz, Democrat- New York's 12th District (Sunset Park, Bushwick, Williamsburg), first elected 1974.
Stephen Solarz learned the hard way what happens to Congressmen who ignore state politics. Solarz was one of the most outspoken Democrats on foreign policy, and was well known for his advocacy of Israel, prominent opposition to Marcos' regime in the Philippines, and for calling for a more aggressive stance against the Soviets. As one of the most powerful voices in American foreign policy, Solarz essentially ignored New York issues and politics and lived in the state in name only. Until 1992's redistricting, Solarz was ridding high and looked like a top prospect to be Bill Clinton's Secretary of State. However, Solarz had few allies in the state legislature, and his district was one of three that was eliminated. Solarz had a massive warchest but no good options: he eventually decided to run in the new heavily Latino 12th District. Solarz emphasized his clout and framed himself as someone who could get things done. Between the crowded field, Solarz's massive warchest, and his attempts to appeal to Latino voters, he got fairly close to winning. But he could not overcome his lack of name recognition, 743 overdrafts from the House Bank, the district's demographics, and attacks for carpet bagging and trying to buy the election. Solarz lost 34%-28% to City Councilmember Nydia Velazquez, who still represents the district.
Mickey Edwards, Republican- Oklahoma's 5th District (Oklahoma City), first elected 1976.
Until the House Banking Scandal, Mickey Edwards looked like he had nothing to worry about. However, his 386 overdrafts and marital troubles essentially ended his career. Edwards failed to even make the primary runoff, winning only 26% of the vote. The eventual winner was Ernest Istook, who held the seat until he unsuccessfully ran for Governor in 2006. Edwards seems to have recovered from his decisive loss, becoming an academic and a frequent political commentator.
Joseph Kolter, Democrat- Pennsylvania's 4th District (Beaver, Lawrence Counties), first elected 1982.
"I am a political whore. And I'm going to play it to the hilt." When those words surfaced on a leaked tape, Joseph Kolter probably ended any chance he had to be reelected. Kolter was already in trouble: he angered his union allies and lost the AFL-CIO's endorsement after he missed an important vote, and was a part of the Congressional post office scandal. He also faced a well-known primary challenge from local TV personality Ron Klink; with all his problems, it's no surprise Kolter lost badly. Klink won 45% of the vote, with Kolter in third place at 20%, the lowest percentage for any incumbent on this list. Klink won the seat and held it until he unsuccessfully challenged Rick Santorum in 2000; Kolter later went to jail for six months for his role in the post office scandal.
1994: Voters remained frustrated with Congress after 1992, but chose to take it out on Democrats in November rather than in primaries. However, four Congressmen still fell in their primaries that year.
David Levy, Republican- New York's 4th District (Garden City, Five Towns, Levittown), first elected 1992.
David Levy has the dubious distinction of being the only Republican Congressman to lose reelection in 1994. Levy, backed by the once mighty Nassau County GOP machine, defeated Assemblymember Daniel Frisa 53%-41%, and Frisa came back for a rematch. Frisa benefited from his old supporters and from the dissent plaguing the Nassau Republican Party. Opponents of party chair Joseph Mondello supported Frissa, while the party worked to reelect Levy. Frissa attacked Levy from the right, and took advantage of ethnic divides among GOP voters. Frissa won a very narrow victory over Levy, signaling that the county GOP was in trouble. Frissa won the seat in November but lost in 1996 to Carolyn McCarthy.
Mike Synar, Democrat- Oklahoma's 2nd District (Northeastern Oklahoma), first elected 1978.
Mike Synar was a liberal and an ally of President Bill Clinton, not a winning combination in a conservative Democratic district. Synar's primary opponent was Virgil Cooper, a 71-year-old retired teacher. Cooper had little money but he had help from powerful interest groups: the NRA, tobacco companies, and western cattlemen spent millions attacking Synar, painting him as an extremist. Voter frustration with incumbents also played a role: the same day as the primary, voters overwhelmingly approved a term limits referendum and ousted a long serving state representative. Synar was defeated 51%-49%, and Cooper soon lost to Republican and future Senator Tom Coburn. Synar sadly died in early 1996 of a brain tumor.
Lucien Blackwell, Democrat- Pennsylvania's 2nd District (West Philadelphia), first elected 1991.
Lucien Blackwell, the handpicked candidate of Philadelphia ward leaders in a 1991 special election, never had much time to establish himself. In 1992 he only narrowly won his primary and soon found himself facing State Senator Chaka Fattah in 1994. Fattah accused Blackwell of forging his petitions, and said that the incumbent did not achieve results in office. While publicly ward leaders supported Blackwell, many privately were for Fattah after Blackwell ignored them. Blackwell hoped that his incumbency and the ward leaders would carry him to victory: they didn't. Fattah won 58%-42%, and still holds the seat.
Craig Anthony Washington, Democrat- Texas's 18th District (Central Houston), first elected 1989.
Sometimes, the question isn't why a Congressman lost but why he chose to run again. Craig Anthony Washington had recently gone to jail for thirty days after leaving his legal clients in the lurch, filed for bankruptcy while owing $250,000 in taxes, and voted against Houston's economic interests when he opposed NAFTA and the space station. He also voted against thanking the troops who participated in Desert Storm, and had the worst attendance rate in Congress. Against Houston city councilwoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Washington lost 67%-33%. Lee continues to represent the district. Washington found himself in the news again in 2008, when he shot at two teenagers during a parking lot confrontation.
Barbara-Rose Collins, Democrat- Michigan's 15th District (Southern Detroit), first elected 1992.
Barbara-Rose Collins' numerous problems contributed to her decisive defeat. She was under investigation over the misuse of campaign and scholarship money, she faced questions about financial disclosures, her Congressional attendance was poor, and she missed a vote condemning the burning of black churches for a casino opening. She lost the backing of black religious leaders to her most prominent opponent State Representative Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who attacked Collins as ineffective. Collins could not overcome her problems and lost 51%-31%. However, the fortunes of Collins and Kilpatrick would eventually reverse. Collins was elected to the Detroit City Council in 2001 and served for eight years, and Kilpatrick lost her own primary in 2010.
Greg Laughlin, Republican- Texas's 14th Congressional District (Gulf Coast), first elected 1988.
Originally elected as a Democrat, Greg Laughlin switched parties in 1995 with the promise of establishment support. However, many members of his new party did not trust Laughlin: he had not been particularly conservative before his switch, and local GOP leaders were unhappy to have the man they had just tried to defeat forced on them. However, National Republicans believed it was essential to reelect Laughlin: they believed if he lost his primary, conservative Democrats would think twice before switching parties. Laughlin soon drew a challenge from former Congressman and 1988 Libertarian Presidential Nominee Ron Paul. Paul used his funds to effectively target Republican voters in the low turnout race: he mailed video tapes to voters featuring Ronald Reagan praising him, and attacked Laughlin for taking Congressional junkets and for voting to raise taxes. Despite national Republicans support, Laughlin fell 54%-46%, and Paul held the seat until his retirement this year.
Jay Kim, Republican- California's 41st District (Ontario, Pomona, Yorba Linda), first elected 1992.
When you're running for reelection with a court ordered ankle monitor and are barred from entering your district, you probably aren't going to win. Jay Kim found that out the hard way when he became the only incumbent member of Congress to lose a primary in 1998. Kim had pleaded guilty to accepting $250,000 in illegal contributions, and Republican leaders told him not to run again. When Kim didn't listen, GOP leaders turned to Assemblymember Gary Miller. Miller had no problem winning 48%-26%, and continues to serve in Congress.
Matthew Martinez, Democrat- California's 31st District (East Los Angeles, El Monte), first elected 1982.
Matthew Martinez had taken some controversial votes in his career, and it caught up to him in 2000. Martinez's support for free trade earned him the enmity of the AFL-CIO, which endorsed his opponent State Senator Hilda Solis. Martinez was also hit for his opposition to late-term abortions, and for stalling gun control. Solis outraised Martinez by a massive amount and won 63%-29%. Angered by his loss, Martinez spent his last months in Congress as a Republican. Solis held the seat until she became Secretary of Labor in 2009.
Michael Forbes, Democrat- New York's 1st District (Eastern Suffolk County), first elected 1994.
Former Republican Michael Forbes switched parties in 2000, and won the support of national Democrats. However, Forbes did not change his positions, remaining fiscally conservative and opposed to abortion. In his first primary as a Democrat Forbes faced Regina Seltzer, an underfunded 71 year old librarian. Seltzer hit Forbes on his votes with the GOP on taxes and his anti-abortion views. Republicans, seeing their chance to get revenge on Forbes and take back the seat, sent out mailers depicting Forbes as a solid conservative. Seltzer narrowly defeated Forbes, and soon lost the general election to Felix J. Grucci Jr., who served one term before losing in 2002.
Merrill Cook, Republican- Utah's 2nd District (Salt Lake County), first elected 1996.
Merrill Cook was never beloved by his party, running as an independent in a number of races before winning his seat. Cook's prospects for reelection were damaged by his own behavior: he had a number of public outbursts, was found guilty of not paying $175,000 he owed to an old campaign manager, and was called delusional by his former chief of staff. Cook lost his primary to businessman Derrick Smith 59%-41%; Smith lost the seat in November to Democrat Jim Matheson. Since his defeat, Cook has returned to his previous career of losing elections.
2002: This was another redistricting year. While it did not approach the chaos of 1992, four incumbent Congressmen lost primaries to challengers.
Earl Hilliard, Democrat- Alabama's 7th District (Selma, Birmingham), first elected 1992.
Hilliard faced a rematch with his 2000 primary challenger Artur Davis, and this time the contest did not go well for the incumbent. Hilliard lost several of his strongest areas to redistricting in exchange for territory that was expected to favor Davis. Hilliard also faced several questions about his ethics: he was called the top junketer in Congress, didn't pay his taxes, and converted campaign gifts for his own uses. Davis, outspent badly in 2000, received a great deal of help from supporters of Israel who saw Hilliard as hostile to the country. Davis stated Hilliard did little to help the district and attacked him for trying to lift sanctions on states that supported terrorism; Hilliard falsely accused of resigning over a date rape charge. Davis won the runoff 56%-44%. When Davis left the seat to unsuccessfully run for Governor in 2010 (shortly after losing, Davis became a Republican), Hilliard's son Earl Hilliard Jr. ran for this seat but lost the primary.
Gary Condit, Democrat- California's 18th District (Stockton, Merced), first elected 1992.
Conservative Democrat Gary Condit was popular in this district until he was accused of murder. Condit admitted to having an affair with intern Chandra Levy, but denied any role in her disappearance. The scandal dominated the news until September 11th, and Condit saw his old allies abandon him. Condit insisted on running for reelection, but lost 53%-39% to his former aide and Assemblymember Dennis Cardoza. Years later Levy's killer was found, with Condit having nothing to do with her death. In June of 2012, Condit's son Chad ran as an independent for a Central Valley Congressional seat but failed to make it to the general election.
Cynthia McKinney, Democrat- Georgia's 4th District (DeKalb County), first elected 1992.
Cynthia McKinney's electoral fortunes were endangered after a series of controversial comments. After New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani rejected a $10 million aid check by a Saudi prince after the prince said American support for Israel led to the September 11 attacks, McKinney apologized to the prince and said she'd have accepted the money. McKinney later accused President George W. Bush of deliberately ignoring warnings about 9/11 in order to boost defense stocks of his allies' companies. DeKalb County State Court judge Denise Majette opposed McKinney. Majette received extensive help from supporters of Israel who saw McKinney as hostile; McKinney got contributions from Arab-American groups too, but was out-raised 2-1. Many of McKinney's former supporters distanced themselves from her, and Majette was helped by strong support from Republican voters. Majette won the runoff 58%-42%. However, this did not end McKinney's career. Majette gave up the seat in 2004 to unsuccessfully run for the Senate; McKinney avoided controversy and won it back. McKinney's second stint in Congress would soon end much the same way her first had.
Thomas Sawyer, Democrat- Ohio's 17th (Warren, Youngstown), first elected 1986.
Redistricting and his free-trade votes cost Tom Sawyer another term. He vastly outspent his opponent Tim Ryan, but his votes for NAFTA and normalized trade with China were too much to overcome. Sawyer did poorly in the new areas of the district and lost overall 41%-27%; Ryan won the seat in November and still holds it. However, Sawyer's wide loss didn't keep him from returning to elected office: he has served in the Ohio Senate since 2007.
2004: Texas preformed a controversial, mid-decade redistricting in 2003 endangering many Democrats in both their primaries and in the general. Perhaps not coincidentally, the only Congressmen to be primaried in 2004 were Texas Democrats.
Chris Bell: Democrat-Texas' 9th District (Mission Bend, Missouri City), first elected 2002.
Chris Bell was one of the many victims of redistricting after the GOP deliberately redrew the white Bell into a heavily minority district that was more than half new to him. Former Harris County NAACP director Al Green was not shy about bringing up race, and easily defeated Bell 66%-31%. Bell ran for Governor in 2006 and state Senate soon after, losing both. Green continues to hold the seat.
Ciro Rodriguez: Democrat- Texas' 28th District (Laredo, southern San Antonio), first elected 1997.
Redistricting added Laredo's Webb County to the district, and Rodriguez soon attracted a challenge from Laredo based former Secretary of State and 2002 Congressional candidate Henry Cuellar. Rodriguez was initially shocked that his old friend was running against him but found out the hard way that Cuellar was a serious opponent. Cuellar carried Webb County, which cast 31% of the vote, 84%-16%. Cuellar's victory at home allowed him to win a very narrow victory against Rodriguez. Rodriguez sought a rematch against Cuellar in 2006 but decisively lost. However, when the Supreme Court ordered some of the state's districts be redrawn, Rodriguez was unexpectedly given another chance to return to Congress. He defeated Republican Henry Bonilla and served until he was swept out in the 2010 GOP wave. Rodriguez is currently running again, and faces a primary runoff on July 31st; Cuellar still serves in Congress.
Cynthia McKinney, Democrat- Georgia's 4th District (DeKalb County), first elected 2004, previously served 1993-2003.
Until she stabbed a Capitol Hill police officer with her cell phone, Cynthia McKinney looked safe for most of her term. That incident brought McKinney unfavorable headlines and once again earned her a credible primary challenge. This time her opponent was DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson, who benefited from the organized Republican crossover voting that hurt McKinney in 2002. McKinney lost by a similar margin, falling 59%-41% in the runoff. McKinney soon left the Democratic Party and was the Green Presidential nominee in 2008. She is currently running for her old seat again as a Green against Johnson: while this match-up may draw some attention, Johnson should have nothing to worry about.
Joe Schwarz, Republican- Michigan's 7th District (Battle Creek), first elected 2004.
Moderate Joe Schwarz won his 2004 primary due to a number of conservatives splitting the vote. He was not so lucky in 2006. His sole opponent was former State Representative and 2004 candidate Tim Walberg, who heavily talked up his own conservatism. The conservative Club for Growth targeted Schwarz, hitting him on spending and his support for amnesty for undocumented immigrants; Schwarz's vote against banning same-sex marriage also made him a ripe target. Walberg defeated Schwarz 53%-47% and won the seat in November. Schwarz soon became an independent and supported Democrat Mark Schauer's successful bid against Walberg in 2008. After Walberg won back the seat, Schwarz even flirted with running as a Democrat before deciding against it.
Wayne Gilchrest, Republican- Maryland's 1st District (Northern Baltimore suburbs, Eastern Shore), first elected 1990.
Wayne Gilchrest was no stranger to competitive primaries, constantly defeating opponents who painted him as a moderate. Gilchrest's prominent opposition to the Iraq War turned out to be too much in 2008. State Senators Andy Harris and E.J. Pipkin attacked Gilchrest on Iraq, immigration, and taxes. Gilchrest had the support of President George W. Bush but it wasn't enough. The Club For Growth and former Governor Bob Ehrlich backed Harris, who won 43%-33%. Gilchrest did not take his defeat well, backing Democrat Frank Kratovil over Harris in the general election. Kratovil narrowly defeated Harris, but lost the rematch in 2010.
Al Wynn, Democrat- Maryland's 4th District (Prince George's County, Montgomery County), first elected 1992.
Al Wynn's support for the Iraq War and ties to business interests almost cost him his seat in 2006, when businesswoman Donna Edwards came surprisingly close to defeating Wynn in the primary. Facing a rematch, Wynn moved to the left, co-sponsoring a resolution to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. It wasn't enough; Edwards continued to attack Wynn for his special interest ties. This time Wynn fell 59%-37%; the incumbent soon resigned his seat and Edwards won the special election, entering Congress early.
David Davis, Republican- Tennessee's 1st District (Bristol, Johnson City, Greeneville), first elected 2006.
David Davis narrowly won a crowded 2006 primary for this open seat with 22% of the vote; Johnson City Mayor Phil Roe finished fourth with 17%. Roe came back for a rematch in 2008, and hit Davis for securing earmarks for companies that helped his campaign and for taking money from oil companies. With gas prices high, Roe's attacks on oil seemed to resonate with voters, and Davis unexpectedly lost 50%-49%. Davis was a bitter loser, refusing to concede for weeks and contemplated challenging Roe in 2010. However, Davis decided not pull the trigger on his campaign, and Roe continues to hold the seat.
Chris Cannon, Republican- Utah's 3rd District (West Jordan, Provo), first elected 1996.
Chris Cannon was one of the Houses' most conservative members, but his stance on immigration led to repeated primary challenges. Cannon supported a guest worker program and charging in-state tuition to the children of undocumented workers. He survived a 2004 primary 58%-42%, and a 2006 match 56%-44%, neither a strong performance. In 2008 he faced Jason Chaffetz, the former chief-of-staff to Governor John Huntsman. Chaffetz hit Cannon on immigration as well as earmarks; while Cannon heavily outspent Chaffetz, he fell 60%-40%. Chaffetz had no problem winning the seat in the general.
Parker Griffith, Republican- Alabama's 5th District (Northern Alabama), first elected 2008.
Parker Griffith was a conservative Democrat who decided his prospects for reelection would be better as a Republican. He was wrong. Madison County Commissioner Mo Brooks attacked Griffith for his party switch, saying the district needed an honorable Congressman. The fact that Griffith had voted to make Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House and had once donated to Howard Dean did not help his chances. Griffith lost his first election as a Republican 51%-33%. In 2012 Griffith attempted to return to Congress by primarying Brooks, but he was defeated 71%-29%.
Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Democrat- Michigan's 13th District (Detroit, Wyandotte), first elected 1996.
As Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's career imploded in scandal, his mother found her own name tarnished by his problems. While Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick was not connected to her son's many issues she only narrowly survived her 2008 primary 39%-35% and probably would have lost if not for a third major candidate taking 25%. In 2010 the incumbent's luck ran out. State Senator Hansen Clarke argued that the scandal made Kilpatrick an ineffective Congresswoman and won 39%-34%.
Bob Inglis, Republican- South Carolina's 4th District (Greenville, Spartanburg), first elected 2004, previously served 1993-1999.
As the Tea Party fervor swept the Republican Party in 2009 and 2010, Bob Inglis' chances for reelection began to dim. Inglis, a Republican who urged moderation, was contently on the defensive during the campaign. Inglis' conservative opponents attacked him on earmarks, his opposition to the surge in Iraq, his opposition to drilling in ANWR, and his vote to bailout the financial sectors. Inglis survived until the runoff but was crushed 70%-30% by prosecutor Trey Gowdy.
Alan Mollohan, Democrat- West Virginia’s 1st District (Northern West Virginia), first elected 1982.
Alan Mollohan was cleared of funneling federal money to allied groups shortly before the primary, but had little time to celebrate. Mollohan faced conservative Democratic State Senator Mike Oliverio, who continued to hit the incumbent's ethics. Conservative groups got involved in the race, attacking Mollohan for his vote in favor of health care reform. Mollohan lost 56%-44%; Oliverio narrowly lost the general election to Republican David McKinley.
2012: A number of states have yet to hold their primaries, but 2012 is already shaping up to be a relatively bad year for House incumbents. Four House members have fallen to challengers: if a fifth loses, 2012 will be the second worst year for House incumbents in recent memory. However, 2012 is very unlikely to reach 1992 levels of turnover, where fifteen Congressmen lost primaries to challengers.
John Sullivan, Republican- Oklahoma's 1st District (Tulsa), first elected 2002.
This one was a pretty big upset. John Sullivan was attacked by former Navy pilot and museum director Jim Bridenstine for failing to rein in spending, missing votes, and for his personal problems (Sullivan was at the Betty Ford Clinic in 2009 because of his addiction to alcoholism). Sullivan easily outspent Bridenstine and looked to be on track for reelection, but realized too late that he underestimated his opponent. Bridenstine won 54%-46%, and should easily win this Republican district in the general.
Jean Schmidt, Republican- Ohio's 2nd District (Southern Ohio), first elected 2005.
Jean Schmidt had constantly performed poorly in her Republican leaning district, winning unimpressive general election victories in 2005, 2006, and 2008. Still, it was a surprise when she lost to former Army doctor Brad Wenstrup. Schmidt had several liabilities: conservative activists remained angry at her decade-old vote to raise taxes, and she probably only made things worse when she gave President Barack Obama a kiss on the cheek at the State of the Union. The incumbent had some ethics difficulties as well: she had been accused on taking money from Turkish groups to vote against recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Redistricting may have made the difference: much of Wenstrup's home county of Hamilton was added to the district. Despite all this, Schmidt reportedly did not take the race seriously. Ultimately, Wenstrup survived most political observers by winning 49%-43%, and he should easily win the general election.
Tim Holden, Democrat- Pennsylvania's 17th District (Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Levittown), first elected 1992.
Tim Holden had long survived as a conservative Democrat in a Republican-leaning district, even winning a tough 2002 race against a GOP incumbent. However, redistricting complicated Holden's chances: he found himself in a Democratic leaning district that was 76% new to him. To make matters worse, Holden faced a formidable challenge from lawyer Matt Cartwright, who was well known in the Scranton area. Holden's conservative record was now a liability, as Cartwright attacked Holden's vote against healthcare reform. Holden attempted to introduce himself to voters in the new district but his ads were largely seen as ineffective. On primary night, Holden did very well on his home turf, but Cartwright decisively won overall 57%-43%. In this Democratic district, Cartwright should easily win the general.
Silvestre Reyes, Democrat- Texas's 16th District (El Paso), first elected 1996.
Silvestre Reyes had always been easily reelected, but his luck ran out as he faced former City Councilman Beto O'Rourke. O'Rourke attacked the incumbent as corrupt, linking him with El Paso's local political corruption and criticizing him for using campaign money to pay family members. O'Rourke also turned Reyes' seniority against him, saying he had not done enough with his power to help his constituents. Reyes had the support of President Obama and former President Clinton, but it wasn't enough: O'Rourke won 50%-44%, and is heavily favored in the general.
What can we learn from these elections?
Between 1992 and this point in 2012, forty-four Congressmen lost their primaries to challengers, with Cynthia McKinney losing twice. Some trends stand out:
When Incumbents lose, they tend to lose big. Thirty-five out of these forty-four Congressmen lost by at least six points. Twenty-six of them went down by at least ten, with McKinney losing by double digits both times.
Poor Ethics Costs Seats: Ethics plays a big role in explaining primary defeats. Twenty-one of these Congressmen were accused of doing something ethically wrong (overdrawing from the House bank, being fined by a court, or even going to jail), or being connected to something illegal (Kilpatrick and Reyes are included in this category). The House Banking Scandal explains seven of these defeats. This category does not include legal but frowned upon activities such as raising one's pay or taking money from certain business interests. Interestingly, sex scandals were not a big factor. No Congressmen lost simply for sleeping with someone they shouldn't have. The allegations need to be much worse, such as attempted rape (Gus Savage) or even murder (Gary Condit) for a sex scandal to cost someone reelection.
Redistricting Kills: Redistricting played a big role in fifteen of these forty-five defeats.
Ideology Matters: Many of these Congressmen had political views very out of touch with their districts. Sixteen of these Congressmen lost at least partially because they were seen as out of touch with their constituent's views. This can range from supporting free trade in a heavily blue-collar area (Tom Sawyer), being a moderate Republican (Bob Inglis), or a party switch gone wrong (Greg Laughlin, Michael Forbes, Parker Griffith).
Redistricting, Ideology, and Ethics explain most defeats: At least one of these three categories as a factor in forty-two of these races. The Congressmen who lost for other reasons were David Davis in 2008, John Sullivan in 2012, and Cynthia McKinney in 2002. (In 2006 McKinney did stab an officer with her phone, and assaulting a policeman should probably be counted as an ethical lapse.)
Once You Lose, You Rarely Return: Only two of these Congressmen returned to the House after their defeat. (Cynthia McKinney and Ciro Rodriguez). McKinney's district seemed to quickly remember why it voted her out, while Rodriguez demonstrated more staying power in his new home.
Democrats are more likely to throw their incumbents overboard: Twenty-eight Democrats lost their primaries versus sixteen Republicans.
The South Does Not Like Incumbents: Nineteen of these defeats came from the Old Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma. The runoff may explain some of this: the anti-incumbent vote getting split in a runoff state isn't a big deal as long as no one gets >50%, while in the rest of the county a weak incumbent can still win with less than 50%. No state outside the South uses a runoff for Federal elections except South Dakota.
The Winner of the Primary Usually Gets Elected: Thirty-three of the successful challengers won their seats in November, and the four 2012 winners are all heavily favored in their races. Only eight challengers fell in November.
Freshmen Aren't That Vulnerable : Only seven of these Congressmen were freshmen (six if you could Cynthia McKinney in 2006 as a veteran for her previous service).
Ultimately, Congressmen are incredibly hard to defeat in primaries. However, the unlucky forty-four show that it is doable. It usually takes at least one of the following ingredients: unfavorable redistricting, ethics problems, and being out of touch with the primary electorate on at least one key issue. There are always exceptions: a Representatives' embarrassing behavior can lead to defeat, as Cynthia McKinney found out the hard way in 2002. John Sullivan and David Davis also didn't satisfy any of these conditions and still lost. Still, most losses from 1992 to the present can be explained by one of these three factors.
Did I make a mistake? Did I leave something out? Have any local color to add to my descriptions of these races? Let me know in the comments!