Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

On primary challenges

I bookmarked this Statesman story about State Sen. Jeff Wentworth and the primary challenge he faces back when it ran, not because I was terribly interested in that particular race (though some elements of it are quite entertaining) but mostly because it piqued my curiosity about a broader question.

The seven-term senator, who represents parts of South Austin, has drawn not one but two challengers for the Republican nomination. And the three have been sparring for weeks over everything from who lives in the San Antonio-based District 25 to the ethics of fundraising tactics and, especially, which candidate is conservative enough to win the party’s nod.

It’s an unusual position for Texas senators, most of whom never draw election challengers from within their party. But for Wentworth, an iconoclast who doesn’t always toe the party line, it’s familiar territory. He survived a tough primary challenge in 2002, which he won with only 51 percent of the vote.

“Clearly, what happens is special interests come in and inflame people’s passions on an issue and try to defeat you, by saying things that are untrue,” Wentworth said, alluding to a tort reform group’s endorsement of one of his opponents. “That’s happening this time.”

This got me wondering just how often legislators in Texas draw primary challengers. I presume it was more common back in the day when Texas was a Democratic Party-only state, but the records on the Secretary of State webpage only go back through 1992. I just checked the last decade, and did so for both parties and both chambers. Here’s what I found:

Republican incumbent primary challenges Year Chamber Races Losses ============================= 2002 Senate 3 0 2002 House 11 0* 2004 Senate 0 0 2004 House 12 0 2006 Senate 1 0 2006 House 21 5 2008 Senate 2 0 2008 House 17 5 2010 Senate 3 0 2010 House 17 3 (*) - One pairing of incumbents, in HD83 2006 losers: Blake (09), Campbell (72), Casteel (73), Grusendorf (94), Reyna (101) 2008 losers: Macias (73), Haggerty (78), West (81), Latham (101), Van Arsdale (130) 2010 losers: Brown (04), Merritt (07), Jones (83), Democratic incumbent primary challenges Year Chamber Races Losses ============================= 2002 Senate 0 0 2002 House 16 4 2004 Senate 3 0 2004 House 18 7 2006 Senate 1 1 2006 House 12 2 2008 Senate 1 0 2008 House 12 4 2010 Senate 1 0 2010 House 7 5 2002 losers: Salinas (31), Najera (75), King (80), Garcia (104) 2004 losers: Capelo (34), Canales (35), Wise (39), Gutierrez (41), Garza (80), Lewis (95), Wilson (131) 2006 losers: Madla (SD19), Jones (110), Edwards (146) 2008 losers: Escobar (43), Moreno (77), Bailey (140), Miles (146) 2010 losers: Olivo (27), Ybarra (43), Chavez (76), Hodge (100), Edwards (146)

Republicans have had more primary challenges over the past three cycles by a 61-34 margin, but Democrats have been more successful at knocking off incumbents, with challengers succeeding 12 times (35.3%), including a remarkable 5 for 7 in 2010 and the only defeat of an incumbent Senator in 2006. Republicans had barely more victorious challenges with 13, but that’s a win percentage of only 21.3%.

I should note, by the way, that what these numbers indicate is that Senate primary challenges really aren’t any rarer than House primary challenges. Remember, outside of the first post-redistricting election, only half of the Senate is up for election, while the full House is every cycle. What that means is that in the last three cycles, Republicans had about 80 incumbent House members and 10 or 11 incumbent Senators running, while Democrats had about 70 incumbent House members and five or six incumbent Senators on the ballot. You should therefore expect about seven or eight times as many Republican House challenges as Senate challenges, and 12 to 14 times as many Democratic House challenges. Given that, I’d say that the 2006 GOP cycle and the 2010 Democratic cycle were exceptional, but the others were all about what you’d expect.

A more interesting question is whether or not we’ll see more primary challenges over the next decade. I think these things come in cycles, so I would not be surprised if the numbers plateau or decline, but nor will I be surprised if we’re on an upswing. We’ll need to have districts before we can really speculate about it, of course.

Side note from the story:

“I got polled by phone telling me how bad he was, basically,” said Terry Keller, a remodeler who lives in South Austin. “I’ve actually met Mr. Wentworth, and he seems like a nice guy for a politician. He seems to vote independent, what he thinks is best for his district, and not what the power structure wants. So, I like him.”

Others at coffee shops off South Lamar Boulevard and in Sunset Valley last week echoed the sentiment, which helps explain why Wentworth has drawn challengers from the right. No Democrat has filed for the seat.

That’s a nice sentiment for a general election, but not so much for a Republican primary. I’ve previously expressed my concerns about the direction of the next Senate, and the outcome of this race will be a big determining factor in that. Democrats in SD25 need to find a candidate in the repechage filing period to try to salvage something if Wentworth gets knocked off.

Related Posts:

Comments are closed.