Americans have been riveted by the 2016 presidential primaries and the media spectacle that has surrounded the Donald Trump campaign.
This excitement has not carried through to the down-ballot races. In fact, it has been a quiet primary season for candidates running for things other than president.
So far, 2016 has featured little national discussion of the Tea Party agenda that closed the federal government in 2013 and pushed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor from office the following year. There’s been little talk this election year of threatened Republican moderates, a conservative legislative agenda, or of the sorts of ideological battles that have raged over the past years among Republican members of Congress and their would-be colleagues.
House and Senate candidates who object to “business as usual” have struggled to raise money, get their message across and win votes.
In my book “Getting Primaried,” I argue that House and Senate primaries serve as an important indicator of the health of our political system. Political waves that will shape general election results can often be detected by looking at patterns of competition in primaries.
So what are this year’s primaries telling us?
Has presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump killed the Tea Party?
Why primary challenges happen
Over the past decade, Senate and House primaries have become a playground for ideological interest groups. This is an arena where groups can have an impact on Congress for a fraction of what it costs to influence a general election campaign.
If one group, or a small number of groups working together, focuses resources on two or three primary elections, a message is sent to moderate members of Congress that bipartisan compromise carries with it the risk of “getting primaried” – or being replaced by a more ideologically extreme candidate of your own party.
Even if such efforts are ultimately unsuccessful, they can generate enough media coverage to frighten other incumbents. This tactic has been used on both sides, but conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth and the various Tea Party organizations, have been most successful at it.
While the conventional wisdom that contested primaries are becoming more frequent doesn’t bear out, I argue in my book that expensive, high-profile primaries have become more nationally visible.
Only halfway through
Although the presidential primaries have ended, we have just reached the halfway point for down-ballot primary races.
In the House, primaries have been held so far in 265 seats out of 435. Almost all of these have been held in tandem with these states’ presidential primaries. Two Republican incumbents have lost their seats due to unusual, court-ordered mid-decade redistricting in North Carolina and Virginia. Excluding these races and California’s nonpartisan top two primaries, only seven Republican incumbents have been held to less than 60 percent of the primary vote.
Three of these incumbents were running in Texas, a state that supported Ted Cruz in the primary. More so than in any other state, Texas Republican primary candidates had something to gain by tying their campaigns to Cruz’s since he was such a heavy favorite in the state.
If this trend continues, the House Republicans will have had fewer competitive primaries than in any year since 2008. This was not for want of good candidates. Anti-establishment Republicans emerged in House and Senate races in several states, including North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Indiana, but they failed to attract money or interest group attention.
According the data collected by the Campaign Finance Institute, no outside money at all was spent in the six close races. The candidates running against these incumbents each spent less than US$250,000. There have been a few races that wound up being less competitive than this, such as those of Representative John Shimkus (R-IL) and Representative David Joyce (R-OH), where money was spent on behalf of conservative challengers. In such cases, the money did not yield competitive races.
In the Senate, where five centrist Republicans (Pat Roberts, Lamar Alexander, Mitch McConnell, Thad Cochran and John Cornyn) fended off conservative primary opponents in 2014, there have not yet been any competitive races.
Primaries are not just about money, however, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in 2014 showed. They also have to do with who shows up to vote.
Some House and Senate incumbents this year in early primary states such as Alabama and Texas worried that the competitive Republican presidential race would bring to the polls a number of nontraditional voters. One scenario held that such voters, possessed of little information about Congress, would merely opt for the name they knew – the incumbent. It was also plausible, however, that the anti-establishment tone of the leading Republican candidates might prompt their supporters to vote en masse against incumbents further down the ballot.
The former scenario seems to have held. Evidence is mixed on the question of whether Trump did, in fact, expand the GOP primary electorate. Primary results to date suggest, however, that the people Trump inspired to show up do not seem to have taken an interest in races other than Trump’s.
On the Democratic side
Democrats have also seen their down-ballot primaries reshaped by the presidential race.
Democratic primaries have been less competitive than those of Republicans for the past three election cycles. Although some left-leaning groups such as MoveOn.org and the Service Employees’ International Union have sought to emulate the “primarying” strategy of conservative groups, they have failed to create an enduring narrative about any sort of ongoing movement in the party. The unhappiness of Sanders supporters with DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has prompted some national support for her primary opponent Tim Canova in Florida.
Early in the election cycle, it appeared that the Democrats would have several exciting primary races. To date, however, what is most intriguing is the success “establishment” Democrats have had in resolving competitive open seat primaries. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee took the rare step of spending $600,000 on behalf of Pennsylvania’s Katie McGinty’s primary campaign, under the presumption that she would be the stronger general election opponent to vulnerable incumbent Republican Patrick Toomey. The party campaign committee did not get directly involved in other states, but outsider candidates in Ohio and Illinois also failed to get traction.
While Toomey might have been threatened regardless of the outcome of the Republican presidential primaries, widespread beliefs that Trump might prove to be a drag on Republican Senate candidates have prompted increased attention by both parties to vulnerable general election candidates, and presumably to ensuring that the strongest nominees emerge from the primaries.
What’s still to come
There are still 170 House primaries and 15 Senate primaries to go, including those in Florida, New York, New England, and many midwestern and western states. These primaries will be held without a simultaneous presidential race on the ballot. For House and Senate candidates, this mean that the voters will be showing up because of them, not because of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump.
It is possible that things will get more interesting. On the other hand, the public’s attention may be monopolized by the general election. Merely getting a campaign message across will be difficult in a media environment dominated by the presidential race and, in some states, by spending aimed at general election Senate races. It is always a mistake to assume that the story of one election season is bound up in a small number of races, many of which betray idiosyncratic local features. Nonetheless, the 2016 primaries so far, below the presidential level, are remarkable for their irrelevance.