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Beware of the Surprise House Primary Losers

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Rep. Mike Simpson looks like he’ll survive the epic establishment vs. anti-establishment struggle in the GOP primary in Idaho’s 2nd District. But if last cycle is any indication, the incumbents that lose primaries this year will be in low-profile races rather than high profile battles between outside groups.  

In 2012, Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt was caught off-guard in her March primary. The Republican congresswoman was in Washington, D.C., the night she lost to now-Rep. Brad Wenstrup back home in the 2nd District.  

“Her unexpected loss serves as a warning for many members seeking re-election on new turf after redistricting or facing even the smallest political challenge,” wrote Roll Call’s Shira T. Center and Amanda Becker in a post-primary piece . “More importantly, Schmidt’s loss signals a still-unsettled electorate looking for a reason — any reason — to boot an incumbent from office.”  

Apparently not every member reads Roll Call. But they should.  

Three months later, Oklahoma Republican John Sullivan lost his primary to Jim Bridenstine in the 1st District. Sullivan wasn’t completely shocked on Election Night, but he admitted to the Associated Press that he ignored the race for too long. Even though the race engaged in the final days, it wasn’t a national race by any stretch of the matter.  

Then, two more months later, Florida Rep. Cliff Stearns lost the Republican primary to large animal veterinarian Ted Yoho. It was a legitimate surprise to national race watchers and to the congressman, who had $2 million sitting in his campaign account when he lost.  

Texas Democrat Silvestre Reyes also lost his primary to Beto O’Rourke. But that race received some national attention because former President Bill Clinton came to west Texas for an event for the congressman. And The Campaign for Primary Accountability, which received a disproportionate amount of national media attention, made Reyes a top target.  

Pennsylvania Democrat Tim Holden’s primary loss wasn’t a surprise either, particularly if you read Shira’s piece the week before . Republican mapmakers had redrawn his district, giving him new, heavily Democratic territory in Northeast Pennsylvania, far from his Schuylkill County (Pottsville) base. He was unknown in much of the new district, which no longer resembled the politically competitive district he had represented.  

I should note that I did not include a group of eight members who lost in primaries because they lost to fellow incumbents because of redistricting. Each of those races was well-covered and it was inevitable that one incumbent was going to lose.  

So before Tuesday’s primaries in North Carolina, Indiana and Ohio, it’s possible that an incumbent such as Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones could succumb to his challenger. [Read Emily Cahn’s Roll Call story and Peter Hamby’s CNN story for a primer.] But it seems more likely that a member will lose in a race that no one is talking about yet.