Aug. 28, 2015 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Don’t Believe the Anti-Incumbent Narrative

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Tim Holden and other lawmakers are vulnerable in their upcoming primaries, but it is not, as some people claim, because of an “anti-incumbent” mood or Congress’ poor approval ratings, Stuart Rothenberg writes.

Lugar’s record and style don’t fit comfortably with where his party now is, yet he made little or no effort to sooth conservatives or to prepare for a battle. If he had, he might, for example, have purchased a house or condo in the state so that he wouldn’t need to stay in a hotel when he returns to the state to campaign.

More than a year ago, I wrote in this space about Lugar’s vulnerability in a possible one-on-one primary. Almost immediately, I received a call from a Lugar staffer telling me how wrong I was and pointing out that the Senator was hugely popular and had a large campaign war chest.

In other words, Lugar’s team didn’t understand what could happen if voters were presented with a credible opponent who either had money or would be supported by outside groups willing to spend heavily to defeat the Senator. And later, the campaign didn’t understand why anyone would care that Lugar didn’t own a residence in the state.

While Lugar invited a difficult primary by antagonizing conservatives, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) did the opposite. After then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) was denied renomination last cycle, Hatch prepared for the worst-case re-election scenario. He put together a strong political team, including veteran strategist Dave Hansen, who first talked to me about Hatch’s plans shortly after the 2010 elections.

Hatch has drawn a credible foe for the state nominating convention this Saturday in former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, and a June primary is possible. But the six-term Senator, who was elected the same year as Lugar (1976), is much better positioned to be his party’s nominee than Bennett was or Lugar is.

There are other primaries, of course, that could raise eyebrows and will be cited as evidence that voters want to throw out everyone in Congress.

Indiana Rep. Larry Bucshon faces a rematch against Kristi Risk, a tea party “constitutionalist” who finished just 4 points behind him in the 2010 open-seat GOP primary, and in Pennsylvania, five-term Rep. Tim Murphy (R) is being challenged in his primary by evangelical Evan Feinberg, a conservative who describes Murphy as a “liberal” in a campaign TV spot. Feinberg has the support of FreedomWorks and of GOP Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), for whom he worked.

The challenges to Republican incumbents Bucshon and Murphy (and to Michigan Rep. Fred Upton) are overwhelmingly ideological, not anti-incumbent.

Elsewhere, in Tennessee, freshman Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who won the 2010 open-seat GOP primary with only 30 percent of the vote, faces two very strong opponents and has never represented almost a third of the redrawn district, including one county where a strong challenger comes from. And in California, Rep. Joe Baca (D) faces a primary battle against state Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod in a district that is about 40 percent new to Baca.

The challenges to Fleischmann are based primarily on his inherent weakness and vulnerability, and to a lesser extent on the new district’s geography, while Baca’s problem primarily is geographic.

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