Do Primaries Help or Hurt in the General? : A Look at 51 House races from 2006

The general belief seems to be that it is important to “clear the field” in primaries to get a winning hand in the fall general election.  The belief is founded on a number of factors.  Many interest groups will not back a candidate with a primary election opponent.  Primary election campaigns can be costly and challengers generally have less money to spend than incumbents.  Anecdotal evidence points to a number of campaigns easch cycle where a strong primary is followed by disappointing results in the fall.

I decided to test this thesis by looking at election results for all 31 Democratic pickups in the House during the 2006 cycle (including Peter Welch as a pickup in Vermont) and comparing the results to close losses.  The close losses were not systenmatic but I looked at 20 races that fit the bill.

Overall, 14 of the 31 pickups (45%) were preceded by primary elections, a higher than expected number.  Although some of these were blowouts, a surprising number were close and in many cases surprise winners emerged despite less money.  As a comparison, among the 20 close but losing elections only seven (35%) were preceded by primaries and only one of those was close: the Tammy Duckworth-Christine Cegelis- Scott duel in IL-6.

Adding fuel to the fire, IIRC, all 3 of our special election vitories were preceded by primaries.  Bill Foster’s win in IL-14 (at least for November) against John Laesch, was a much tougher battle than his win against Jim Oberweis.

A listing and some commentary follow with emphasis on upsets and close races.

The only primary that mattered in the New England House races mattered a good deal.  Carol Shea-Porter surprised Jim Craig in a multi-candidate field and then won a close election to the House with just $290,000 in campaign expenditures (being outspent nearly 4:1). Nobody knows if the better known, more establishment Craig would have pulled it off.  Shea-Porter depended mostly on volunteers and a lot of shoe leather, particularly her own.  Her personal efforts in Manchester vs. Craig going door to door and bar to bar certainly paid off in both the general election and in the primary, itself.

NH-2 (Hodes) and the CT races (Joe Courtney, CT-2; Chris Murphy, CT-5, and Diane Farrell, CT-4 were all uncontested.

New York had six major races with three pickups and three close loses.  Only one had a primary and that produced what was seeen on the blogs as an upset.  In NY-19, John Hall won rather easily in a multi-candidate field converting his years as a local official and rock star status (singer with the band Orleans famous for “You’re the One”) into a comfortable victory over the much better funded Judy Aydelott and others (I remember Ben Shuldiner).  NY-20(Kirsten Gillibrand),24 (Michael Arcuri), 25 (Dan Maffei),26 (Jack Davis), and 29 (Eric Massa) were uncontested.  Gillibrand and Arcuri won in the fall.

PA produced four wins and one close loss.  Two of the four winners (Jason Altmire and Patrick Murphy) faced primary challengers.  Altmire got a fairly sturdy challenge besting Georgia Berner 55% to 45% en route to dethroning Melissa Hart in PA-4.  Murphy had an easier time over Andrew Warren 65% to 35%.  Lois Murphy had a token challenge against Anrew Leibowitz (76% to 24%)  prior to losing versus Jim Gerlach in PA-6.

Elsewhere in the Northeast, Linda Stender had no primary but lost closely to Mikrke Ferguson in NJ-7.  Peter Welch, a general election winner in VT also faced no primary.

Lest we forget, in OH-18 Zach Space coasted to an easy win in November but many thought Joe Sulzer would be the likely nominee.  Space won in a multi candidate field.  Only one of three close losers in OH faced a primary (Vic Wulsin who won in a multi candidate field including Thor Jacobs and Jim Parker).  John Cranley and Mary Jo Kilroy had an open path to the general election.

Both Joe Donnelly and Baron Hill faced easy primaries and Brad Ellsworth went unopposed among three Indiana pickups.  Tim Walz in Minnesota was also unopposed but Steve Kagen had to claw his way through a multi-candidate field  including Wall and Nussbaum.  I remember a lot of people touting Nussbaum.

Tammy Duckworth spent a bundle to secure the Democratic nomination by just 1,000 votes over Christine Cegelis.  And provided a disappointing loss in November.  Tim Walz in MN-1 had a clear field but Steve Kagen had to beat a multi-candidate field before he clould allegedly tell Karl Rove he was Dr. Multi-Millionaire.

John Yarmuth got 53% in a primary vs. Andrew Horne and others before taking on Anne Northrup in KY-3.  Heath Shuler coasted through his primary but Tim Mahoney and Ron Klein in Florida got free rides.  Close losers in the south also had to earn their way in with larry Kissell having an easy time but Christine Jennings (61%) drawing 2004 nominee Jan Schneider (39%) in FL-13.

In the Plains, Bruce Braley had a brutal three way battle against Dickinson and Gluba but Dave Loebsack had no opponent.  Nancy Boyda wa unopposed. Nick Lampson and Ciro Rodriguez were OK (although this was Ciro’s second go around in the cycle).

Out west, winner Harry Mitchell was unopposed butGabrielle Giffords won 54% in a multi-candidate fieldand Jerry McNerney had to upset the establishment fave, Steve Flson, befoe taking down Richard Pombo in the general.  Ed Perlmutter also triumphed against two other strong candidates particularly Peggy Lamm in CO.

Western close losers Gary Trauner, Darcy Burner and Angie Pacccione were unopposed and Tessa Hafen won easily in NV with 58% in a multi-candidate field.

In short, the winners in pickup races were more likely to face a challenge, more likely to face a serious challenge and were forced to pull upsets against better funded opponents in a number of races.  You would be hard pessed to make an argument for clearing the field based on these results.

Nasty blood fueds like Cegelis vs. Duckworth however were damaging and they should be avoided.

In the South, John Yarmuth (KY-3)


5 thoughts on “Do Primaries Help or Hurt in the General? : A Look at 51 House races from 2006”

  1. I think you generally prefer no primary since it not only allows the eventual winner to save money for the general, but also allows him or her to keep the same consistent message throughout.  In a primary, a moderate may need to move his message to the left, but in the general that same candidate is forced to move back to the center.  This can be damaging.  

    I think on the whole this argument is overblown.  Only the most divisive primaries really do lasting damage.  For example, MS-01 this year and NV-02 almost in 2006, but the former, as we all know, had unique dynamics in the district.  Just having a civil primary often won’t do huge damage, but it depends on the district and the candidates

    Personally, I find general assumptions on politics like this kind of silly.  It may seem incredibly simplistic, but many, many races are determined almost solely by the quality of the individual candidates.  Pundits and experts like to expound ad nauseum on trends and assumptions about politics, but it almost always depends on the specific dynamics of a race and the individual candidates.  

  2. Which of these seats were open seats.  

    You list all of these as competitive primaries but they are all open seats.


    OH-2 was not open but had a wingnut nobody liked, even Republicans






    CA-11 was not open but had an extremly damaged incumbent

    Here are the competitive primaries with an undamaged incumbent




    That 8 to 3, a pretty wide difference.  So, when these competitive primaries occur, it is nearly three times more likely that they are wont be facing an incumbent who will be raising tons of cash freely.  And, all of these competitive primaries occured in swing districts or at least competitive ones where I would venture guess also featured competitive Republican primaries.

    So, the conclusion it appears I have drawn is competitive primaries dont really matter and dont have the drawbacks to the extent we think they do.  Like with the IL-14 example, we had a competitive primary, but they had a competitive primary as well, extra divisiveness aside.  The difference is when in we have the competitive primary and the Republicans get a tier 1 recruit and no one else enters because said candidate is going to win it, regardless of who else jumps in.

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