A Primary Loss Does Not Equate a Lost Cause

by Nathan L. Gonzales June 2, 2010 · 11:17 AM EDT

Democrats are reveling in the primary losses of candidates preferred by the National Republican Congressional Committee in the last couple of weeks. But they only have to look back four years within their own caucus to see that upset primary winners can get elected to Congress.

In Idaho’s 1st district, Iraq war veteran Vaughn Ward had reached the top level of the NRCC’s “Young Guns” program and had a significant lead heading into the May 25 primary. But he made a series of serious missteps in the final days and lost to state Rep. Raul Labrador, 48 percent to 39 percent.

Ward’s “loss calls into question the competence of the NRCC’s political skills,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee charged in a press release, which noted other Republican establishment candidates who have lost in primaries this year. But that doesn’t mean Republicans can’t win in the Idaho district or elsewhere.

Back in 2006, there were several instances where House Democrats’ top recruits lost in the primary, yet the party still picked up the seat in that fall’s Democratic wave election.

In California’s 11th district, Navy veteran and former airline pilot Steve Filson was one of 22 initial challengers on the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program, the Democratic prototype for the GOP’s Young Guns program.

Six weeks after being added to the list in 2006, Filson lost the Democratic primary in a dramatic fashion to wind turbine company executive Jerry McNerney, who took 53 percent to Filson’s 29 percent.

The DCCC went on to spend a meager $217,000 in the general election, but McNerney defeated GOP Rep. Richard Pombo, 53 percent to 47 percent. The challenger had considerable help from the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

McNerney wasn’t the only Democrat that cycle to defeat the establishment candidate in a primary and win the general election with little or no help from the national party.

In New Hampshire’s 1st district, social worker and community college instructor Carol Shea-Porter trounced state House Democratic leader Jim Craig, the national party’s preferred candidate, by a whopping 20 points in the September primary.

The DCCC didn’t spend a dime on independent expenditures in the general election as Shea-Porter defeated then-Rep. Jeb Bradley (R) 51 percent to 49 percent in November.

In New York’s 19th district, attorney Judy Aydelott was the early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2006, but she lost the primary, 50 percent to 27 percent, to former 1970s band Orleans frontman John Hall. The DCCC didn’t spend any money in the general election, and Hall defeated Rep. Sue Kelly (R) by 2 points.

These Democratic examples from 2006 do not necessarily mean that Labrador will defeat Rep. Walt Minnick (D) in Idaho or that Keith Rothfus, another upset GOP primary winner, will unseat Rep. Jason Altmire (D) in Pennsylvania’s 4th district. But with the national political climate trending in their favor, it is unwise to dismiss these GOP nominees out of hand, according to one veteran Democratic consultant.

“We are in denial,” according to the Democratic source, who is concerned about a prevailing “arrogance” among party operatives. The political winds working against the party in power can be enough to help flawed nominees win.

In Kentucky’s 3rd district in 2006, newspaper columnist John Yarmuth (D) wasn’t an upset primary winner, but Republicans believed they drew the Democratic candidate with the most baggage.

Iraq war veteran Andrew Horne (D) generated significant attention for being one of many veterans running for Congress that cycle, but Yarmuth won the primary, 54 percent to 32 percent.

“We were concerned with Horne because of his military background and lack of a voting record,” said Terry Carmack, then-Rep. Anne Northup’s (R) chief of staff at the time. “As it turns out, it didn’t matter because the campaign became a referendum on George Bush.”

Yarmuth defeated Northup by 3 points in the general election.

Sometimes strategists at the campaign committees may have picked the wrong horse in the beginning or the establishment candidate simply was not the best general election nominee.

In the case of Ohio’s 18th district, Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer was supposed to be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2006 even though Republicans were eager to run against him because of his personal baggage. Attorney Zack Space ended up winning the nomination with 39 percent, while Sulzer finished third with 24 percent.

Space was the less experienced politician but had a sufficient clean slate compared to embattled then-Rep. Bob Ney (R), his initial opponent, and then-state Sen. Joy Padgett (R) after Ney dropped out and then finally resigned.

Overall, instant, post-primary analysis can be dangerous when looking too far ahead to the general election. There are plenty of examples to show that candidates can win primaries and general elections without the support of the national party, particularly with the wind at their backs.