Primary Peril for Members

Posted June 25, 2008 at 6:39pm

Another one bites the dust.

With his defeat Tuesday by a fellow Republican, Rep. Chris Cannon (Utah) became the third House Member to lose his primary this cycle, following Maryland Reps. Albert Wynn (D) and Wayne Gilchrest (R) — a relatively high number given that the Congressional primary season is barely half over.

And Cannon might not be the last Member to succumb to an intraparty challenge. Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska), Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), John Barrow (D-Ga.), William Jefferson (D-La.), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) and Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) all face credible challengers from within their own party later this summer.

Why all the internecine warfare?

Former Rep. Charles Bass (N.H.), who now runs the Republican Main Street Partnership, said the trend does not necessarily have a rhyme or reason, except that voters are just as unhappy with Congress this cycle as they were in the previous cycle.

“Some of it’s candidate-specific, but a lot of it is just general discontent on the part of the American people with the Congress as part of a continuation of 2006,” he said.

Bass said that while some of the vulnerable Members, such as Young and Jefferson, have been in Congress for a long time, others have more isolated problems.

Voters are “not picking sides in terms of partisanship,” Bass said. “They’re just picking incumbents. I wouldn’t want to be a freshman Congressman in a district with which I failed to cement an awfully good relationship.”

Enter Lamborn and Barrow, who have served one and two terms, respectively, and who are both getting competitive primary challenges.

Challenging Lamborn are two of his opponents from the bitter 2006 5th district GOP primary, including one — former House aide Jeff Crank — who almost beat him. A recent survey conducted jointly by pollsters for Lamborn’s two primary opponents showed him with a weak 34 percent re-elect number but had him 20 points ahead of his nearest competitor in the Aug. 12 primary.

Lamborn, like some of his fellow vulnerable Members, could benefit from the split primary opposition.

Meanwhile, Barrow narrowly avoided defeat in his 2006 general election and is expected to have a tough fight again this year. But before that can happen, an even bigger concern for the sophomore Congressman is the Democratic primary challenge he’s facing from state Sen. Regina Thomas, who is black.

The 12th district is about 45 percent black, meaning the primary electorate should be majority black. And if Thomas, who has served in the Georgia Legislature for more than a dozen years, can raise a sufficient amount of money and gain recognition outside of her Savannah base, she could well knock off Barrow, who is white.

Barrow has one ace in the hole, however: a recent endorsement by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

While Barrow and Lamborn are fairly junior, most of the other vulnerable Members with primaries on their hands have been in the House for decades.

Veteran Rep. Towns is facing a spirited Democratic primary challenge from Kevin Powell, an author, community activist and “Real World” cast member.

Powell is making his youth and new ideas — he is 42, and the Congressman turns 74 later this year — a major component of his campaign.

Towns survived a primary scare in 2006 when he won a three-way contest over two elected officials with just 47 percent of the vote. Towns has his share of detractors at home, and some local insiders occasionally speculate that with unified opposition, he can be denied a 14th term.

But there is some question whether Powell has the fundraising chops and organizing prowess to defeat the wily Congressman.

Another long-serving Member, Young, is also getting a primary from someone 30 years his junior: Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell. Currently under a federal investigation, the 18-term Republican is getting his toughest challenge in decades in part because of an earmark put into a transportation bill that would benefit one of his donors.

Parnell’s challenge also hits at the heart of Young’s investigation: Parnell has backing from anti-pork groups including the Club for Growth in addition to the support of a very popular, reform-minded governor. But as one of the most senior Members of the House, Young is proud of the fact that he has done his fair share of earmarking.

And if his own legal troubles don’t take him down first, Jefferson will certainly be in for a very competitive primary on Sept. 6. The nine-term Congressman is starting to see challengers lining up to run against him.

Earlier this month, both state Rep. Cedric Richmond and Jefferson Parish Councilmember Byron Lee announced that they would take on Jefferson.

Both are considered serious challengers, but the line of challengers for Jefferson’s seat is expected to continue to grow before next month’s filing deadline. Kenya Smith, a top adviser to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D) who announced last week that he would soon be stepping down from the mayor’s staff, is expected to throw his hat into the ring.

Kilpatrick is also being affected by legal problems, but they aren’t hers — they belong to her son: Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (D) has been charged with eight felony counts involving a whistle-blower case and text messages that contradict his sworn testimony in that case.

Through it all, Kilpatrick has stood by her son. One of her Democratic primary opponents, former state Rep. Mary Waters, has made an issue of that fact, while her other opponent, state Sen. Martha Scott, has so far run a more positive campaign. However, having both Waters and Scott in the race might save Kilpatrick by splitting the vote against her.

Oddly enough, almost none of the vulnerable Members with competitive primaries, except for Young, seems to follow in the path of those who have already lost their party contests. Cannon, Gilchrest and Wynn all were defeated by less moderate candidates and appealed to their party’s base voters.

That’s also what happened to the lone House Member to lose his primary in the 2006 cycle, former Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.). He chalked up his loss to outside groups such as the Club for Growth.

“What I think of Club for Growth, you couldn’t print,” Schwarz said.

A former state legislator, Schwarz won his seat as the only moderate candidate in a crowded 2004 primary. Now-Rep. Tim Walberg, with backing from the club, defeated Schwarz in 2006 when they were the only two Republicans in the field.

“If you are able to whip up a small coterie of supporters for a candidate on the ideological right or the ideological left in a primary, you have a good chance of winning,” Schwarz said.

David M. Drucker, Josh Kurtz and John McArdle contributed to this report.