Will Mood for Change Benefit Primary Challengers?

by Stuart Rothenberg February 2, 2006 · 9:06 AM EST

Despite of the difficulty of knocking off incumbent Members of Congress in primaries, a handful of potentially serious Congressional primaries are taking shape this cycle. Will the overall political environment, which favors change over the status quo, benefit these insurgents?

The two high-profile primary challenges to Senators are on tap in Rhode Island and Hawaii.

Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey’s challenge to Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) has received plenty of publicity so far, and TV ads supporting each man already have aired. In Hawaii, Rep. Ed Case’s announcement earlier this month that he will take on Sen. Daniel Akaka, 81, in the Democratic primary raised more than a few eyebrows in the nation’s capital. Despite some similarities, the two races are based on different assumptions.

Laffey’s challenge to Chafee is based partly on ideology, partly on style. The mayor is attempting to play the role of the conservative, populist outsider to Chafee’s establishment insider. Given Congress’ standing in national polls and the negative press that many Members have been receiving, Laffey’s style could resonate with voters.

Case’s primary challenge, on the other hand, is generational. He has talked about the need to “phase in” new representation so Hawaii doesn’t lose all of its seniority in the Senate all at once.

“I think it is a matter of transition, and it’s a matter of how Hawaii can best be represented throughout the next generation,” said the 53-year-old Democratic House Member.

While versions of the age argument have been tried before — by Democrats against then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) in 1996 and by Republicans against Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) this cycle — the argument doesn’t have a long history of success. Still, if voters truly want change, the argument might have particular resonance this year.

In the meantime, at least three House incumbents face potentially difficult races for renomination: Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) and Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.). And that number could grow if other developing races take shape.

Schwarz’s opponent, Tim Walberg, ran in the 2004 open-seat primary and finished third. Walberg is mounting an ideological primary against Schwarz, a relatively moderate Republican who won a crowded primary two years ago when multiple conservative candidates divided the conservative vote.

Cuellar’s primary opponent, former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, is trying to win the Democratic nomination from the man who took away his seat two years ago. Democratic supporters of Rodriguez’s challenge, including former Rep. Martin Frost, a one-time chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, complain that Cuellar votes too much like a Republican.

Schmidt’s primary challenger is former Rep. Bob McEwen, a former six-term Member from Ohio. Redistricting following the 1990 Census forced McEwen to run against another Republican Congressman, and while McEwen won that primary, he was defeated by Ted Strickland (D) in the general election. More recently, McEwen sought the GOP’s 2nd district nomination in the special election triggered when then-Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was named U.S. trade representative. McEwen finished second, right behind Schmidt, in that special primary.

Why is McEwen challenging Schmidt, who has served in Congress since only last August?

“Bob wants to return to Congress. He wants the district to have the conservative representation in Washington that it once had. And he can put his six terms of seniority in the House to good use,” McEwen communications director Michael Harlow told me recently.

But few insiders believe McEwen’s challenge is really about ideology. Nor is it even about Schmidt’s electability, even though the former Congressman’s campaign packet contains information that questions her ability to retain the seat. McEwen appears to be running mainly because he enjoyed being in Congress.

The list does not end there. Other troublesome primaries are possible for incumbents.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) faces a developing primary challenge from state Rep. Chuck Espy, nephew of former Rep. Mike Espy (D-Miss.). Assemblyman Juan Vargas (D) is taking on Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) in a district that, according to the Congressman’s Web site, is “53 percent Latino.” And in Georgia, DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson is taking on Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D).

Texas Rep. Tom DeLay (R), currently under indictment, also faces primary challengers, though his vulnerability in a primary is uncertain. And former Rep. Pete McCloskey (R) hopes his primary challenge to Rep. Richard Pombo (Calif.) develops into a credible one.

Upstate New York Republican Rep. Sherwood Boehlert often faces a challenge for renomination from the right, and with New York’s late primary, in September, a troublesome contest is still possible.

What does history tell us about primary challenges when voters are in a “time for a change” mood? In 1994, the last time a huge wave swept through Congress, not a single sitting U.S. Senator was denied renomination. In the House, four incumbents were defeated — Democratic Reps. Craig Washington (Texas), Lucien Blackwell (Pa.) and Mike Synar (Okla.) and Republican Rep. David Levy (N.Y.).