Just a Handful of Members in Primary Trouble

Posted May 17, 2010 at 6:19pm

After the nation watched Rep. Alan Mollohan’s (D-W.Va.) long political career come crashing down last week, it suddenly became very vogue to paint a target on the back of every incumbent.

Congressional approval ratings are at all-time lows and there will always be surprises, but with 31 of 50 state filing deadlines now passed and primary season heating up, the fact is that there are very few Members who have much to fear from a serious intraparty challenge. And several Members who do make the list are defending themselves against attacks on ethics or other special circumstances rather than criticism of their years in Congress.

So why the hype now?

“We overreact to everything here in Washington,” longtime Democratic media consultant Steve Murphy said.

When four House Members — three Republicans and one Democrat — lost primaries in the spring of 2008, there was similar speculation in the media about the sky falling on all incumbents, regardless of party, during the primary. But most serious students of political history understand that anti-incumbent waves aren’t party-blind; they hit one party or the other in the general election.

Murphy said it would be folly for politicians to shrug off Mollohan’s loss, especially on the heels of Sen. Bob Bennett’s defeat at Utah’s Republican nominating convention three days before.

“It does indicate voter frustration with Congress. But the notion that every incumbent is vulnerable in both parties is just not true,” Murphy said.

GOP direct-mail consultant Dan Hazelwood agreed.

“Because people are grumpy about the economy and about Washington they want to hear what these people have been doing,” Hazelwood said. “Incumbents who are taking care of business at home, talking to their community leaders, being in touch with their party are going to be fine. … If you can do that, unless there’s something extraordinary, you’re going to be OK.”

Defeating an incumbent in a primary still requires a confluence of circumstances, including having a credible challenger who can raise serious money to fund a district-wide campaign.

Mollohan’s challenger, state Sen. Mike Oliverio (D), was a known political quantity who had an effective message in hitting Mollohan on his past ethical issues. Perhaps most importantly, he also had the funds to get that message on the air, and he wasn’t drowned out by Mollohan, who reportedly ran a low-tech unsophisticated campaign that wasn’t up to modern standards.

Rep. Bob Inglis could certainly be the next House Member to fall in a primary. The South Carolina Republican’s challenger, Spartanburg County Solicitor Trey Gowdy, is attacking the Congressman for moving too far to the center during his many years in Washington, D.C. It’s a message that Gowdy has been able to make stick because he’s amassed a war chest that has nearly matched the Congressman’s this cycle.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) also faces a primary opponent with an impressive war chest. Reshma Saujani, a hedge fund attorney and former lawyer for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political action committee, has raised over half a million dollars in her effort to target the nine-term Congresswoman. But she’ll have to raise a lot more as Maloney’s war chest passed the $2 million mark earlier this year.

Other challengers with work to do include Florida state Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson (D) who is challenging Blue Dog Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.). Boyd has taken flack from his Democratic base for his conservative positions, but it’s going to be hard for Lawson to compete if he doesn’t have the money to let voters know where he stands. Boyd had a 30-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage on the state Senator as of the beginning of April.

Lackawanna County Commissioner Corey O’Brien (D), who is facing Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) in today’s primary, also seemed like a credible challenger early on. But a lack of fundraising on his part has put the Congressman in a good position heading into the election in the Keystone State.

Other serious primaries appear to have more to do with circumstances surrounding the Member than they do with a general anti-incumbent mood.

Freshman Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith (R) will be fighting for his political life on June 1, but his primary is more about voters never fully embracing his December party switch.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) also has a serious challenge on his hands, but it is turning on the issue of his ethical troubles.

Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) is facing a tough primary due in large part to her support of her son, disgraced ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who was convicted of obstruction of justice. Her top opponent in that race is state Sen. Hansen Clarke, one of Kwame Kilpatrick’s former mayoral opponents. Clarke is positioning herself as someone who can give Detroit a fresh start.

Other serious primaries could still develop.

In New York, there’s ongoing speculation that progressive groups or the labor-backed Working Families Party could back challengers to Democratic Reps. Michael Arcuri or Michael McMahon, who both voted against the heath care overhaul earlier this year. New York’s filing deadline isn’t until July.