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Rhodes Cook Letter Says Far More Congressional Incumbents Lose General Elections Than Primaries

The Rhodes Cook Letter is a print publication that is published every two months. Every issue has analysis of U.S. elections. The editor is Rhodes Cook, who also authors America Votes, the books that appear every two years and contain accurate and complete election returns for president, congress, and gubernatorial elections. The books include both primaries and general elections.

The February 2014 Rhodes Cook Letter has a survey of congressional incumbents who have been defeated for re-election in the years 2000 through 2012. It finds 209 incumbents were defeated during those years. Of those 209, 167 were defeated in the general election and only 42 (20%) were defeated in a primary.

The Independent Voters Network (based in California) and Independent Voting (based in New York) both engage in activism against closed primaries. Both organizations frequently say that primary elections are far more important than general elections, and sometimes they even allege that 95% of all elections are decided in the primaries, not the general elections. However, neither organization, to date, has presented any statistical evidence for those claims.

8 Responses

  1. Demo Rep

    ANTI-Democracy gerrymanders control about 97 plus percent of the EVIL rotted oligarchy politics in the USA.

    P.R. and nonpartisan App.V. = NO primaries

  2. Jim Riley

    John Dingell is not running for re-election. By your reckoning neither the 2014 primary or general election will be decisive, since he will not be defeated.

    But in a practical sense, the 2014 Democratic primary will be decisive.

    In the Texas House, of the 150 districts, 59 have no Democratic candidate, 45 have no Democratic candidate, and only 46 have both Republican and Democratic candidates.

    There were 49 contested primaries.

  3. Richard Winger

    Primaries are very important when incumbents don’t run for re-election and when the district is overwhelmingly safe for one party or the other.

  4. Jim Riley

    I would consider the following elections to be decisive, in the sense of the election clearly deciding who would represent the district in Congress.

    2001:

    CA-32 Watson elected in special election to replace Dixon (deceased).

    2002:

    CA-18 Cardoza defeats Condit in Democratic primary, and then defeats Monteith (51-43) in general.

    CA-21 Nuñes won Republican primary in essentially new district.

    CA-39 Sanchez won Democratic primary, and then defeated Escobar 55-41 in general, in dramatically reconfigured district in which incumbent Republican retired.

    CA-18 and CA-39 were the only districts within 15% in the general election.

    2004:

    CA-3 Lungren elected in Republican primary after Ose retires), easily wins general

    CA-20 Costa nominated in Democratic primary after Dooley retires, elected in general 54-46.

    CA-26 Dreier re-elected 54-43.

    CA-37 Millender-McDonald held to 65% in 3-way Democratic primary.

    Decisive elections: 6 primaries; 4 general; and 1 special.

  5. Jim Riley

    2005:

    CA-5 Doris Matsui replaces Robert Matsui (deceased) in special election.

    CA-48 Campbell replaces Cox (resigned) in special election.

    2006:

    CA-50 Bilbray replaces Cunningham (resigned) in special election. Bilbray held to 54% in 10-candidate GOP primary held same day as runoff for special election. Bilbray elected to full term 53-44 in general.

    CA-4 Doolittle held to 67% in Republican primary. Doolittle wins general 49-46.

    CA-6 Woolsey held to 66% in Democratic primary.

    CA-11 Pombo held to 62% in Republican primary. Pombo defeated by McNerney 47-53 in general.

    CA-22 McCarthy wins Republican primary to replace retiring Thomas.

    CA=26 Dreier held to 65% in Republican primary.

    CA-36 Harmon held to 62% in Democratic primary.

    CA-51 Filner held to 51% in 3-way Democratic primary.

    Decisive elections: 8 primaries, 3 general, 3 special.

    Totals 2002-2006: 14 primaries, 7 general, 4 special.

  6. Jim Riley

    2007:

    CA-37 Richardson replaces Millender_McDonald (deceased) in special election.

    2008:

    CA-12 Speier replaces Lantos (deceased) in special election.

    CA-3 Lungren re-elected in general 50-44.

    CA-4 McClintock nominated in Republican primary to replace Doolittle (retiring). McClintock elected in general 50.3%-49.7%.

    CA-11 McNerney re-elected in general 55-45.

    CA-26 Dreier held to 74.5% in Republican primary. Dreier re-elected 53-41 in general.

    CA-37 Richardson held to 74.5% in 3-way Democratic primary.

    CA-43 Baca held to 66% in Democratic primary.

    CA-44 Calvert re-elected 51-49 in general election.

    CA-46 Rohrbacher re-elected 53-46 in general election.

    CA-50 Bilbray re-elected 50-45 in general election.

    CA-52 Hunter held to 72% in 4-way Republican primary.

    Decisive elections: 5 primaries, 7 general, 2 specials.

    Totals 2002-2008: 19 primaries, 14 general, 6 special.

  7. Jim Riley

    2009:

    CA-10 Garamendi elected in special election to replace Tauscher (resigned).

    CA-32 Chu (Judy) elected in special election to replace Solis (resigned).

    2010:

    CA-2: Herger held to 65% in Republican primary, re-elected 57-43 in general election.

    CA-3 Lungren re-elected 50-43 in general election.

    CA-11 McNerney re-elected 48-47 in general election.

    CA-19 Denham wins Republican primary to replace Radonovich (retiring).

    CA-20 Costa re-elected 52-48 in general election.

    CA-26 Dreier held to 72% in Republican primary.

    CA-33 Bass wins Democratic primary to replace Watson (retiring).

    CA-34 Roybal-Allard held to 71% in Democratic primary.

    CA-36 Harman held to 59% in Democratic primary.

    CA-37 Richardson held to 67% in Democratic primary.

    CA-41 Lewis held to 66% in Republican primary.

    CA-42 Miller held to 49% in 4-way Republican primary.

    CA-44 Calvert held to 66% in Republican primary, re-elected 56-44 in general election.

    CA-45 Bono Mack held to 71% in Republican primary, re-elected 52-42 in general election.

    CA-47 Sanchez re-elected 53-39 in general election.

    Summary: Primary 11; general 7, special 2.

    Totals 2000-2010: 30 primaries, 21 general, 8 special.

    Over 53×5 = 265 elections, the primary was more often decisive than the general, though this was only 11% of elections.

  8. Jim Riley

    These elections were Top 2. All but the 2011 special election were after redistricting, so it is difficult to assess the effect of the two reforms.

    24 of the elections were decisive, compared with 59 over the previous five election cycles, resulting in a doubling

    2011:

    CA-36 Hahn replaces Harmon (resigning)

    2012:

    CA-1 LaMalfa replaces Herger (retiring) 57-42 in general.

    CA-2 Huffman replaces Woolsey (retiring).

    CA-3 Garamendi re-elected 54-46 in general.

    CA-7 Lungren loses re-election to Bera 48-52 in general.

    CA-8 Cook replaces Lewis (retiring), 57-43 in RR general.

    CA-9 McNerney re-elected 56-43 in general.

    CA-10 Denham re-elected 53-47 in general.

    CA-15 Stark defeated by Swalwell, 48-52 in D v D general.

    CA-16 Costa re-elected 57-43 in general.

    CA-21 Valadao elected to open seat in general (replacing Cordoza?)

    CA-24 Capps re-elected 55-45 in general.

    CA-25 McKeon re-elected 55-45 in general.

    CA-26 Brownley elected 53-47 (replacing Gallegley).

    CA-29 Cardenas elected to open seat in general.

    CA-30 Sherman beats Berman in pairing of two incumbents.

    CA-31 Miller re-elected to Congress from open district in R vs R matchup.

    CA-33 Waxman re-elected 54-46 vs independent in general.

    CA-35 Baca defeated in re-election attempt by Negrete McLeod 44-56 in D vs D matchuo.

    CA-36 Bono Mack defeated in re-election attempt 47-53.

    CA-41 Takano elected in open seat.

    CA-44 Hahn defeats Richardson in D v D paired incumbents.

    CA-47 Lowenthal wins in open seat 53-44.

    CA-51 Vargas wins in general to replace Filner, retiring.

    CA-52 Bilbray loses re-election in general 49-51.

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