The congressional incumbent, the biggest creature in Washington’s swamp, is considered to be one of the safest jobs in the city. It has a low turnover rate, good pay and is easy to be rehired every two years. In fact, if your seat is considered safe enough for your party, you don’t have to do much as an incumbent other than vote. Sometimes that does change, however. Whether it’s a midterm year or redistricting, these jobs can sometimes be a little harder to retain. 2020 is not one of those years, but we haven’t seen incumbents lose at this rate in four decades. So what has caused this sudden string of incumbent defeats this cycle?
The Growing Progressive Wing of the Democrats
Three of the eight successful primaries have come from the Democrats. All three happened because upstart progressives affiliated with Justice Democrats beat less progressive incumbents. The most understandable one was the first race to have an incumbent to fall this year. In Illinois’s 3rd district, Marie Newman built on her narrow 2018 defeat against incumbent Dan Lipinski to defeat the incumbent by two percentage points. Lipinski was deeply out of touch with the current Democratic Party, voting against abortion access and healthcare access bills that are key to the current form of the party.
The other two results came against incumbents who weren’t against the party grain, but against the views of their constituents. In NY-16, Elliot Engel, a longtime congressman, faced off against Jamaal Bowman, a Middle School principal from the Bronx. Bowman surpassed expectations and beat Engel by 15 points once all the ballots were counted. Then, in Missouri’s 1st district, Lacy Clay, whose father had held this seat before him also fell to a challenger from Justice Democrats, Cori Bush.
Why did these three incumbents all fall?
The common theme in all three of these races was that a long-time incumbent was bested by a more progressive challenger. Now, some were more warranted than others. While Lipinski was out of touch with his party, the other two didn’t fit as well into that category. Two of the other major reasons Engel and Clay fell were age and race.
Engel has held this Bronx and Westchester-based district since 1988, when he himself beat Mario Biaggi, an incumbent. It was definitely a different scenario there, as Biaggi was one of the more corrupt members of Congress. The factor that in my opinion truly played a factor here was race. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests, the focus on racial issues had never been higher in Congress. Bowman was suited for this moment perfectly. As a born and raised Bronx resident and as a middle school principal, Bowman had dealt with the systemic racism that people feel tarnishes America’s police. Bowman made his points clear on that and in this moment it gave him the advantage over the aging Engel.
In Missouri’s 1st district, what led Bush to upset Clay was neither policy or race. Here the contributing factor to Clay’s loss was age. Clay had previously defeated Bush in 2018. Clay was certainly not a moderate by any standards, but he did do politics the old way. The age difference between the two candidates also showed in their campaign. While Bush had a very strong and active presence, Clay was made fun of for his poor graphic design on Twitter. The people of the district might not have wanted a change in policy more than they wanted a new face. Clay’s father had held this district for decades before he took over. It was time for a change and the district did not let him leave on his own terms.
The Republicans Primaried
The GOP has actually had more members primaried so far this cycle. Three of them were ones that the party wanted to see happen.
In Iowa’s 4th congressional district, Steve King’s loss to Randy Feenstra was a long time coming for the party. King had made racist, white nationalist and borderline Nazi-like comments throughout his time in Congress. After finally being kicked off committees in 2019, King was given the boot by his constituents in the primary.
Steve Watkins in Kansas’s 2nd also had major issues. While Watkins seemed like the right candidate in 2018 as a moderate former Marine, his time in Congress has been scandal-filled, from accusations of an affair and sexual harassment to being charged with voter fraud. All this led to national Republicans convincing current Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner to leave the Senate primary and run here. It paid off as LaTurner beat Watkins by 16 points, ridding the GOP of another scandal-plagued candidate.
Finally, there was the defeat of Ross Spano in Florida’s 15th district. Spano had come under fire for investigations into his 2018 finances. While he ran the closest race of these three, Spano still lost by around three points. His challenger, Scott Franklin, took a huge margin of the vote in Polk County and was supported by Matt Gaetz coming into the primary.
GOP struggles in VA-05 and CO-03
The problems for the GOP lie in their other two primaried candidates. Incumbents losing in these hurt the GOP rather than helped them.
In Virginia’s 5th, Denver Riggleman came under fire from far-right activists in his district after officiating a gay wedding. This led to a primary challenge from evangelist Bob Good. In a normal system, Riggleman probably wouldn’t have had to worry about this challenge. But the Virginia GOP made the nomination a convention, giving Good a better chance. Then, after being rescheduled due to COVID-19, the replacement site became Bob Good’s church.
Numerous other discrepancies seemed to occur, as Good also spent most of his measly fundraising on paying off convention voters. Riggleman lost 57-43 among the convention members and Good’s victory has put what was thought to be a safe seat into play.
The other race was in Colorado’s 3rd district. Here, incumbent Scott Tipton lost to right-wing challenger Lauren Boebert. This loss does come down to mistakes on Tipton’s part. Boebert’s base was located in the highest-populated county in the district, Mesa, and she was airing advertisements in the county and surrounding areas. Tipton left those unanswered, already putting him in a weak position. Boebert ended up winning 55-45 on primary night and her own issues immediately came out. Not only had her already controversial restaurant, Shooters Grill, defied COVID restrictions, Boebert had seemingly accepted the QAnon conspiracy,
Boebert is not Marjorie Taylor Greene, though, and she did reject the conspiracy the day after she won her primary. Her victory has still put a seat that was thought to be safe for the GOP somewhat in play this cycle.
What’s the driving force behind these primary successes?
Three paths have shown up in successful primary races this year: connecting more with the base, being backed by the party, or a major age difference. Most of these successes this cycle had more than one of these factors in their campaign, and it helped them to success. The question remains, though: why is this year the year we’ve had the most incumbents fall without redistricting in a long time?
The answer might lie with COVID-19. In a year where most people are unhappy with the federal government, it makes sense that we’re seeing some incumbents take the fall. And we’re technically not finished yet. Massachusetts has two incumbents who are facing major primary challenges on September 1st: Rep. Richard Neal and Senator Ed Markey. No matter what happens in Massachusetts, this is still one of the worst years for incumbents in recent history. It is something that should put them on notice for 2022, a year that could be even worse for them.