• Marc Johnson

Primary Challenges Can Work


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Politico reported over the weekend that many Senate Republicans are dismayed by the primary challenge that Liz Cheney, the very political daughter of the former Vice President, has mounted against Enzi. Typical was the comment of Utah’s Orrin Hatch who knows something about a primary challenge from the right. “I don’t know why in the world she’s doing this,” Hatch said of Liz Cheney. Hatch says Enzi is “honest and decent, hard-working; he’s got very important positions in the Senate. He’s highly respected. And these are all things that would cause anybody to say: ‘Why would anybody run against him?’”

The answer to Hatch’s question is simple: primary challenges, more often than you might think, work for the challenger. In the last two cycles incumbent Republicans lost in Indiana and Utah and a Democratic incumbent lost in Pennsylvania. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost her GOP primary and survived by the skin of her teeth by mounting a rare write-in campaign. Looking even farther back in Senate history in virtually every election cycle since the 1930’s an incumbent Senator has lost a renomination battle.

Consider these politicians who started their path to a Senate career by beating an incumbent in their own party: Howard Baker, Ernest Hollings, Lloyd Bentsen, Bill Bradley, Max Baucus, Sam Nunn, Jesse Helms and John Glenn. Just since the 1960’s all those household name Senators beat a incumbent in a party primary.

By all accounts Liz Cheney faces an uphill battle in Wyoming, a state she claims as home now after living on the east coast most of her life. Carpetbaggers generally are about as welcome in Wyoming as they were during post-Civil War Reconstruction in the South. Limited polling so far shows that Cheney has lots of ground to make up and, while she has announced a group of campaign advisers – all old Cheney family friends – GOP office holders in Wyoming are mostly backing Enzi. Nonetheless, with Senate history as a guide, Cheney’s challenge may not be all that farfetched.

Case in point – Idaho Senate races in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In 1932, Jame P. Pope, the then-Mayor of Boise and a progressive Democrat, was swept into the Senate as part of the Franklin Roosevelt-inspired landslide. Pope built a generally liberal record in the Senate during the New Deal era, but never developed deep ties to the grassroots of the Democratic Party in Idaho. (Yes, Idaho actually had a robust Democratic Party in the 1930’s.) Eastern Idaho Democratic Congressman D. Worth Clark, a member of the prominent Clark family that produced two Idaho governors and Bethine Church, the very political wife and partner of Sen. Frank Church, challenged Pope in the 1938 Democratic primary and won. Clark, considerably more conservative than Pope, went on to serve one term in the Senate, his career most remembered for his anti-FDR, non-interventionist foreign policy views and his leadership of an ill-considered Senate “investigation” of Hollywood’s use of movies to push the United States into support of Britain during the early days of World War II.

In 1944, Clark was challenged in the Democratic primary by a country music entertainer and perennial candidate Glen H. Taylor. Taylor, perhaps the most liberal politician to ever represent Idaho in Congress, won the primary and the general election and served a single term in the Senate. Taylor ran on the Progressive Party ticket for vice president in 1948 as Henry Wallace’s running mate, was attacked as a Communist sympathizer and eventually lost the Democratic nomination in 1950 to the man he had defeated six years earlier – D. Worth Clark. Clark in turn lost the general election that year and effectively ended his political career.

There are many other examples of incumbents – often very prominent incumbents – who lost primary challenges. J. William Fulbright in Arkansas, at the time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lost in 1974 to then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. Fulbright, by the way, launched his own Senate career in 1944 by beating an incumbent – Sen. Hattie Caraway. Montana’s Burton K. Wheeler, one of the most prominent politicians of his day, lost a Democratic primary in 1946. The heir to the Wisconsin political dynasty began by his father, Robert M. LaFollette, Jr., lost a Republican primary in 1946 to a guy named Joe McCarthy.

Primary challenges to Senate incumbents aren’t particularly rare and they are frequently successful, particularly when the challenger has, as Liz Cheney surely does, a well-known name or family connection, displays more star power than the incumbent and makes the case that new blood can be more effective than seniority.

In almost every case I’ve mentioned the party of the incumbent Senator was divided or torn by controversy at the time of the successful challenge. Both Wheeler in Montana and young Bob LaFollette in Wisconsin had gotten badly out of step with their party base, for example. This year in Wyoming Sen. Enzi seems less obviously out of step with his party base, but Enzi would be well advised to go to school on the playbook used by Utah’s Hatch to turn back a Tea Party-inspired challenge in 2012. Hatch started early with his tacking to the right, raised a bucket load of money and carefully avoided face-to-face encounters with his younger opponent. Enzi hasn’t started particularly early, isn’t known as a great fundraiser and, while coming across as a salt-of-the-earth type guy may look old and out of touch one-on-one with the media-savvy Cheney.

Still, the former vice president’s daughter needs a realistic rationale for her candidacy that appeals to the Wyoming Republican primary voter to go along along with the star power that she is trying to project. If she finds the right combination she may contribute to the long history of a Senate incumbent getting knocked off in their own party primary. This will be a fascinating race.

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