We hear a lot about a deeply divided country and fissures within the two main parties.
The division among the Democrats was evident in the last election when liberal Bernie Sanders mounted a formidable challenge against Hillary Clinton, the party establishment’s choice.
Now there is a highly publicized split within the Republican Party. Former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon announced earlier this month he is “declaring war on the Republican establishment” by recruiting primary challengers for more moderate Republicans.
But do primary challenges work? Historically, incumbent members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives have been able to survive contested primaries.
Sabato Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik looked back at the re-nomination rate of members of Congress for the last 70 years and found that incumbents almost always survive the primary.
Kondik reports that since 1946, just 233 of 14,309 members of the House seeking re-election have failed to win re-nomination. That’s a re-nomination rate of 98 percent. On the Senate side, only 46 of 1,026 incumbents lost a primary challenge, for a 96 percent re-nomination rate.
Incumbents have had even higher success rates over the last 30 years, with a 99 percent re-nomination rate.
West Virginia has followed a similar track. I didn’t go as far back as Kondik, but I came up with just three Congressional incumbents losing in the primary in recent memory. In 2010, Mike Oliverio knocked off long-time 1st District Congressman Alan Mollohan in the Democratic primary.
In 1992, Alan Mollohan defeated Harley Staggers, Jr., in the 1st District Democratic primary. However, that race has an important caveat; Mollohan and Staggers, both incumbents, were matched against each other after redistricting eliminated one of the state’s Congressional districts.* There was a similar circumstance in 1972 when the merging of two districts caused incumbent Congressmen Ken Hechler and James Kee to run against each other in the Democratic Primary, which Hechler won.
For the most part, during the modern political history of West Virginia, politicians like Robert Byrd, Jay Rockefeller, Jennings Randolph, Bob Wise, Nick Rahall and Shelley Moore Capito maintained unblemished primary records, often winning by wide margins.
“As is clear, those who want to be re-nominated almost always win re-nomination,” Kondik wrote, “and despite the oft-cited primary unrest on the GOP side, that has not really translated into more incumbents losing.”
True, former House Majority leader Eric Cantor (R, VA-7) lost his primary in 2014, but his race has been the exception and not the rule. Also, Senator Jeff Flake’s (R, AZ) decision not to run for re-election may be counted as a loss since he was lagging in the polls and Trump had backed one of his primary opponents, former state Senator Kelli Ward.
Political incumbency is a stubborn thing. The past suggests that the two political parties tend to rally around the incumbent on Election Day, but as the Trump nomination and election showed, the past may not be prologue.
*(An earlier version incorrectly stated that Bob Wise defeated Harley Staggers, Jr.)