Incumbents split on whether to stay home for primaries or register votes in D.C.

In the wake of low approval ratings for Congress, many incumbents have had to worry about serious primary challenges this election year.

But lawmakers are split on whether it is best to stay in their districts and shake voters’ hands as they go to the polls or let their campaigns handle primary activities so that they can tend to legislative business in Washington.

So far this year, 15 House members in primaries races in which they won less than 70 percent of the vote have had to make that decision. Of those, eight were in their districts and the other seven were in Washington.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a seventh-term legislator who won his June 6 primary with 64 percent of the vote, was in his district on primary day. His absence from the House meant that he missed a vote on the Department of Homeland Security spending bill.

Thompson’s press secretary, I. Lanier Avant, explained, “The best place to be [on primary day] is in the district. It’s important to exercise the right to vote. It is a uniquely special exercise when you get to vote for yourself, so that just makes it more important.”

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), who also had a primary June 6 and decided to remain in his district, took a more nuanced approach.

“I didn’t vote in D.C. that day, but I put in [the Congressional Record] how I would have voted,” he said. “It was a tough primary, and I wanted to know the results. We had lots of supporters there at the time … and I didn’t want them to be there without me.”

He won his primary with 51.2 percent of the vote.

For those members, in addition to Reps. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Jane Harman (D-Calif.), Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), remaining in the district was the priority on primary day.

For Cannon, who won with 56 percent, it was especially important; he had already voted absentee but chose to remain in the district anyway to help out.

The other seven lawmakers were in Washington before the polls had closed in their districts, ready for business as usual.

Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who won his primary with 68.4 percent of the vote, chose to vote absentee. He was in Washington for bills on congratulating Italy for the success of the Winter Olympics and on recognizing the anniversary of Israel’s independence.

An assistant to Ney said, “Congressman Ney misses very few votes in Congress and wanted to make sure he would not miss any that day either.”

Freshman Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), who recently won a special election, faced a tough primary the same day as Ney. She won with 48 percent of the vote, while her closest challenger, former Rep. Bob McEwen, attracted 43 percent.

Schmidt split her primary day in May between Ohio, where she worked the polls in the morning, and Washington, where she returned for votes that occurred before Ohio’s polls closed at 7:30 that evening.

Schmidt Chief of Staff Barry Bennett said that “she thought it was more important to be in D.C. voting in the House than to attend the victory party. … She attended by phone.”

Along with Ney and Schmidt, five others in close primary races — Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), John Doolittle (R-Calif.), David Dreier (R-Calif.), Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) and David Scott (D-Ga.) — chose to be in the capital for votes in the House.

A look at the entire range of primaries, whether contested strongly or not, where incumbents had to choose between voting in the district and voting on the House floor shows different results.

A look at the entire range of primaries — both contested and uncontested — in which incumbents had to choose between voting in the district and voting on the House floor shows different results.

Counting the primaries up to last week, roughly one-sixth of members remained in their districts through the closing of the polls; the others either voted absentee or had returned to Washington in time for evening votes.

Across the Capitol, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) opted to stay home during his contested primary while Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who faced a lesser threat in his primary, was voting in the upper chamber as he breezed to his primary win.

Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who was not challenged for renomination but faces a difficult race this November, was in his home state during his primary.

Where were House members during their close primaries?

In their districts
Chris Cannon (R-Utah)
Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)
Bob Filner (D-Calif.)
Jane Harman (D-Calif.)
Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.)
Richard Pombo (R-Calif.)
Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.)
Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.)

In Washington
Tom DeLay (R-Texas)
John Doolittle (R-Calif.)
David Dreier (R-Calif.)
Bob Ney (R-Ohio)
Ralph Regula (R-Ohio)
Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio)
David Scott (D-Ga.)