The Year of the Senate Primary

Since 1980, there have been just eight serious primary campaigns mounted against incumbent U.S. senators (five of which succeeded and three of which didn’t). But next year alone, we could be looking at as many as six.

The incumbents most vulnerable to serious intraparty competition in 2010 include four Democrats—Kirsten Gillibrand in New York, Chris Dodd in Connecticut, Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and Roland Burris in Illinois—and two Republicans, Kentucky’s Jim Bunning and Arizona’s John McCain.

Granted, they don’t all face the same degree of threat. McCain, for instance, has already drawn two challengers, each eager to exploit the independent streak that has made him an enemy to some on the right. But it’s far from clear that either of them will have the money and credibility to make McCain sweat next year. On the other end of the scale is Burris, who has almost no money and poll numbers that are beyond poisonous; he may not even run for a full term, and even if he does, he’d be almost certain to be routed in the Democratic primary.

So, by the time next year rolls around, the number of incumbent senators locked in competitive primary races may be down to two or three. But that would still be remarkable, given the scarcity of such challenges over the past three decades.

The potential bloodbaths most likely to pan out involve Democratic incumbents. The embattled Dodd is already being challenged by businessman Merrick Alpert. And even though hardly anyone in Connecticut knows Alpert’s name, Dodd only leads right now by a 44-24 percent margin. Gillibrand has struggled in the polls and could face a well-funded challenge from Representative Carolyn Maloney. And Specter, for all the White House glee over his April conversion, is now on course to be challenged from the left by Representative Joe Sestak.

If all three of these Democratic incumbents wind up in heated primary battles, it will match the total number of Democratic incumbents to face serious challenges since ’80. Two of those challenges—Ned Lamont against Joe Lieberman in 2006 and Carol Moseley Braun against Alan Dixon in Illinois in 1992 (with an assist from Al Hofeld)—were successful; a third, Representative Ed Case’s campaign against Daniel Akaka in Hawaii in ’06, failed. And should Burris somehow recover enough standing to wage a competitive campaign, there could be four Democratic incumbents in serious primary races next year.

Nationally, this could be problematic for Democrats, since all four of these seats would, at least potentially, be in play in the fall. Dodd, for instance, already trails the likely G.O.P. nominee in Connecticut, former representative Rob Simmons. And the shady circumstances of Burris’ appointment have opened the door wide for a G.O.P. victory in Illinois. Democrats now face the prospect of nominating bloodied candidates for these races.

Republicans, meanwhile, may be better positioned. Given his long-standing friction with the base, it remains possible that McCain will encounter trouble in his primary. And were he to lose, it would be a huge boost for Democrats—a far-right G.O.P. nominee would be a far weaker fall candidate than McCain. But this is not yet a very likely scenario.

The situation is reversed in Kentucky, where the erratic and grouchy Bunning would be a weak fall candidate. But, while he continues to insist he’s running again, there is rampant chatter that he’s bluffing and will eventually back out. If he were to stay in, a serious primary challenge seems certain.

Of the five credible challenges to Republican Senate incumbents since 1980, three succeeded: Al D’Amato over Jacob Javits in 1980; Sam Brownback over Sheila Frahm in Kansas in 1996; and John E. Sununu over Bob Smith in New Hampshire in 2002. Only Pat Toomey, who fell two points short against Specter in 2004, and Stephen Laffey, who lost to Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee by eight points in 2006, failed.

Even if next year does bring an explosion of primary challenges, it probably won’t signal a new trend. It would be more the result of an unusual mix of circumstances. For instance, Gillibrand and Burris are interim, unelected incumbents. Often, such incumbents succeed in heading off serious challenges—but ambitious politicians are much more likely to challenge appointed incumbents than elected incumbents. (Frahm, for example, had just been appointed to replace Bob Dole when Brownback took her out in 1996.) And Specter, while a duly elected incumbent, faces the skepticism of an appointed incumbent from Pennsylvania Democrats.

Dodd and Bunning, meanwhile, face intraparty threats simply because of their personal image problems—not for any ideological reasons. Dodd has been raked over the coals for his coziness with the financial services sector and the home mortgage industry, and Bunning’s belligerence and sport attendance record have created a damning perception of arrogance (if not plain craziness).

Without their personal issues, Dodd and Bunning would probably be immune from primary challenges, since they are ideologically in tune with their parties’ bases. Ambitious members of their parties would have no choice but to bite their tongues. But because Dodd and Bunning have accumulated such severe personal baggage, their party mates can now justify taking them on. Sununu’s challenge to Smith in New Hampshire ’02 is a good example of this phenomenon.

And if McCain ends up in a dogfight, it would merely represent the latest example of the G.O.P.’s restive base trying to purify the party by weeding out unsatisfactorily conservative incumbents—the same motivation for Toomey’s challenge of Specter and for Laffey’s race against Chafee.

Still, you’d have to go all the way back to 1978 to find the last election cycle in which more than two senators face perilous primaries.

Just like now, the presence of appointed incumbents was a main culprit that year. In Alabama, 52-year-old Maryon Allen was appointed to the Senate by Governor George Wallace in June ’78 after her husband, Senator James B. Allen, died. Allen drew a primary challenge from Donald Stewart, who had been waging a long-shot bid for the state’s other seat, which was also up that year (and was ultimately won by Howell Heflin).

Stewart’s challenge was initially regarded as an affront to Southern tradition (in which widows typically succeeded their husbands in office), but Allen had little knack for politics. She campaigned sparingly and skipped a debate, infamously explaining that she was too busy “washing my clothes home in Gadsden,” and Stewart eventually beat her in a run-off, 56 to 42 percent. (He went on to win in the fall, then lost his bid for a full six-year term in 1980 to Republican Jeremiah Denton.)

Montana’s Paul Hatfield was another appointed incumbent in ’78, chosen to replace the late Lee Metcalf in January of that year. Immediately, he faced a primary challenge from Representative Max Baucus, a fellow Democrat. At the time, Baucus was locked in a power struggle with Montana’s Democratic governor, Thomas Lee Judge, who chose Hatfield, the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, mainly to spite Baucus. But Judge’s unpopularity tainted Hatfield, and his subsequent votes for the Panama Canal treaties ruined him. Baucus won the June primary, 66 to 20 percent.

And then there was New Jersey, where liberal Republican Clifford Case became the first G.O.P. victim of the Reagan revolution, felled by 34-year-old Jeffrey Bell and his band of true-believer conservatives.

It takes a very particular set of conditions for senators to encounter serious primary challenges. Those conditions were in abundance in 1978—and may be even more plentiful next year. 

The Year of the Senate Primary