The 2020 primaries have come and gone and we’re now in the full swing of election season. However, it’s worth taking a look back on what was a surprising primary season. Eight incumbents lost their seats in House races, the most primary defeats for incumbents in decades, and even some Senate primaries saw surprises. So without further ado, here’s the five most surprising primary races of 2020.
Number Five: Kansas’s Senate Republican Primary
Following an upset defeat in the 2018 gubernatorial election, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach set his eyes on the Senate seat being vacated by incumbent Republican Pat Roberts. National Republicans, meanwhile, scrambled to find a challenger to avert a nightmare scenario. They eventually settled on Roger Marshall, the incumbent Representative in Kansas’s “Big First” congressional district.
In a surprising result, Marshall not only beat Kobach – he crushed him. Marshall pulled in 40.3% of the vote compared to Kobach’s 26.1%. Much of this margin came from the 1st, which he carried by nearly 27 points. While Kobach led in three of five polls, including the last poll from Civiqs/Daily Kos, much of his support seemingly bled to pro-Trump businessman Bob Hamilton. While this race is still somewhat competitive, Marshall’s landslide win perhaps averted a pure Tossup race.
Number Four: New York’s 16th Congressional District Democratic Primary
Elliot Engel was first elected via a primary challenge in 1988, so it was truly ironic to see him unseated this way. The Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel had long drawn ire from progressives. Despite a fairly liberal record, Engel’s support of conservative foreign policy positions made him a prime target.
This race might have been higher on the list if it weren’t for an utterly boneheaded hot mic remark. At a press conference on police brutality, Engel was caught saying that he wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for his primary. This remark deeply angered some constituents and primary voters. Ultimately, Engel lost his primary by nearly 15 points to insurgent progressive Jamaal Bowman.
Number Three: Massachusetts’s Senate Democratic Primary
The moment Rep. Joe Kennedy III announced his run for Senate, the death warrant for incumbent Ed Markey seemed to have been signed. However, by election day an early double-digit polling lead had evaporated. This largely personality-driven campaign had been turned on Kennedy’s head. In a complete surprise, the elderly Markey had mobilized younger voters against Kennedy. For the first time in recent memory, a Kennedy had lost a race in Massachusetts.
What happened? Well, in a race that was largely devoid of substance, Markey managed to make an impact. Markey’s long-time support of climate policy and embrace of the Green New Deal earned him vital support from progressives. While Kennedy did well in more working-class areas, Markey was dominant in Boston and its suburbs. In this very white state, Kennedy’s edge with minority voters didn’t amount to much. Ultimately, one of the most high-profile of the 2020 primaries turned into nearly a ten-point win for Markey.
Number Two: Missouri’s 1st Congressional District Democratic Primary
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is known for protecting its own from primary challenges. MO-01 was expected to be no different; incumbent Democrat Lacy Clay had easily dispatched progressive Cori Bush in 2018. A long-time incumbent with high name identity and a strong family name, Clay was expected to easily win re-nomination. Unlike many incumbents, Clay took this primary very seriously.
Early results appeared positive, and many outlets, including Elections Daily, initially called it for Clay. However, by the time the night was over, Bush had pulled ahead thanks to a strong performance in St. Louis City. By a narrow margin of around 3 points, Bush handed the Justice Democrats their third primary upset of the season. Moreover, Bush ended the half-century Clay dynasty that had long dominated St. Louis.
Number One: Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District Republican Primary
Nobody saw this one coming; this was easily the most shocking result of the 2020 primaries. First elected in 2010’s red wave, Scott Tipton had maintained a mostly conservative voting record. However, insurgent businesswoman Lauren Boebert managed to coalesce conservative support against Tipton. The race wasn’t even close, either, as Boebert won by nearly ten points.
How did this happen? Well, Tipton fell asleep at the wheel. Despite having hundreds of thousands of dollars at his disposal, Tipton spent essentially nothing. Crucially, Tipton left the Grand Junction area almost entirely uncontested. This allowed Boebert to control the messaging and precipitated his defeat.
Boebert initially appeared to be a liability, raising the prospect of a highly-competitive race. However, she’s mostly kept to a tight leash in recent months and has largely disavowed more inflammatory views. Because of this, Elections Daily currently rates this race as Likely Republican.