Year of Incumbents Living Dangerously

by John Fund

The Tea Party didn’t knock off any incumbent GOP senators this year in primaries, but last night it proved just how riled up voters are against the Washington establishment. Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander won re-nomination last night with just 49.7 percent of the vote. His main opponent, state representative Joe Carr won 41 percent despite an erratic campaign and being ignored by the major national tea-party groups. Alexander was able to convince just enough conservatives to back him with his rallying cry: “I’m not in the shut-down-the-government crowd, I’m in the taking-over-the-government crowd.”

Alexander becomes the third GOP senator in a month to win with only about half the vote. On Tuesday, Kansas’s Pat Roberts won his primary with 48 percent of the vote in a divided field and in late June, Mississippi’s Thad Cochran won a bitterly disputed runoff with 51 percent of the vote. Michael Barone, the author of The Almanac of American Politics, says the story this year is that incumbents “have been prevailing by tenuous margins in primaries that in the pre–tea-party years would almost certainly not have been seriously contested.”

That certainly proved to be the case in two primaries for Congress in Tennessee last night. Representative Chuck Fleischmann won his third primary in a row with a narrow margin. He won 51 percent over Weston Wamp, the son of former congressman Zack Wamp. The race was significant because Wamp ran to Fleischmann’s left and openly appealed for Democrats to vote for him in the open primary.

Both establishment and pro-life Republicans have been hoping for years that Representative Scott DesJarlais would just fade away. In 2012, it was revealed that as a physician DesJarlais had slept with patients, supported his ex-wife’s two abortions and advised a patient with whom he’d had an affair to have an abortion. DesJarlais barely won reelection in 2012. This year he faced a primary from free-spending businessman Jim Tracy, but a recent cancer diagnosis may have generated some sympathy votes for DesJarlais. With all votes counted, DesJarlais currently holds a lead of just 33 votes. 

The lesson from this year’s primaries is that incumbency still holds enormous advantages but that even weak challengers have been able to put a scare into many incumbents. Time and time again, the Tea Party came much closer than expected to knocking off key incumbents but failed because the challengers simply weren’t top-shelf candidates.