Incumbents feel primary nerves

Election-year fear is spreading through the halls of Congress.

For more than a year, liberal and conservative lawmakers have been concerned about the low approval ratings of Congress. And Tuesday’s primary-election results have them more worried about their political futures.

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Indiana Reps. Dan Burton (R) and Mark Souder (R) won their primary contests on Tuesday, but their closer-than-expected triumphs are a clear indication that anti-incumbent sentiment this election year isn’t limited to Democrats.

After eking out a primary victory even though seven of 10 voters backed someone else, Burton warned some of his GOP colleagues on Wednesday that the political environment for incumbents is treacherous.

“I’m telling them to work really hard because this is not going to be an easy year for anybody. And in the fall, if we all work hard, we can maybe get the majority back, but this isn’t going to be any cakewalk for anyone,” Burton told The Hill.

House GOP leaders have predicted that Republicans have a good shot at regaining control of the lower chamber.

But dissatisfaction with the government and lawmakers has hit an all-time low — a big problem for incumbents on both sides of the aisle, Souder said.

“In Indiana, there seemed to [be] more of an anti-incumbent feel on the Republican side than some of the other states … but clearly this is a trend all over the country,” Souder said.

Souder won his primary with 48 percent of the vote in a crowded field of four GOP candidates.

Former Sen. Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsTrump has named more ex-lobbyists to Cabinet in 3 years than Obama, Bush did in full terms: report Hillicon Valley: FCC approves Nexstar-Tribune merger | Top Democrat seeks answers on security of biometric data | 2020 Democrats take on Chinese IP theft | How Google, Facebook probes are testing century-old antitrust laws Congress should defy Dan Coats' last request on phone surveillance MORE (R-Ind.), running to fill the Indiana Senate seat held by retiring Sen. Evan Bayh (D), was not immune from attacks due to his prior longtime service in Congress, Souder said.

Despite being the heaving favorite, Coats won his primary by only nine percentage points and will face Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) this fall.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) is scrambling just to get on his state’s primary ballot. Utah GOP delegates will make that decision on Saturday, and political analysts say Bennett is facing an uphill climb.

The good news for Republican members is that most of them will be favored to win in November. The bad news is that surviving their primary contests is not a foregone conclusion this cycle.

Some Democrats are facing battles from both the left and right, including Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetThe Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Williamson: Climate change result of an 'amoral' economic system Bennet: 'This generation has a lot to be really angry at us about' MORE (Colo.).

Some members have opted not to run in such a volatile environment.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said that the anti-incumbency sentiment factored into his decision not to run for a 14th term in the House.

The chairman of the House Science Committee conceded that “certainly that was one element” of the decision.

“Clearly, across the board — Republicans and Democrats — it’s primarily a function of the economy. And when you have a bad economy, people are upset with those folks in charge — in charge if you are elected,” Gordon said.

Republicans crowed on Wednesday when Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey announced his retirement, noting they had targeted the Wisconsin Democrat this cycle. Democrats, including Obey, scoffed at the suggestion the retirement had anything to do with Republicans focusing on his seat.

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Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersSocial determinants of health — health care isn't just bugs and bacteria Lawmakers deride FTC settlement as weak on Facebook Overnight Energy: Fight over fuel standards intensifies | Democrats grill Trump officials over rule rollback | California official blasts EPA chief over broken talks | Former EPA official says Wheeler lied to Congress MORE (R-Wash.), who has been helping to recruit GOP candidates this year, said there is a general distrust of D.C. across the country.

“They distrust Washington, they don’t like the current direction and have a lot of doubts about people currently in office,” McMorris Rodgers explained.

And having money to spend in the race, usually a key factor in winning elections, seems less important during years when the electorate is upset with those in power.

Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) pointed out that Republicans were flush with money in the 2006 elections and still lost control of the House and Senate to Democrats.

“Money is important, but in ’06, Republicans had twice as much money as the Democrats, and that’s when they made some of their most major gains,” Carter said.


Even though Republican incumbents have suffered some primary-contest scares, at the end of the day, Souder predicts that Democrats will suffer the most from the anti-incumbent sentiment.

“The incumbency question will play out more against the Democrats than the Republicans, because here’s the question: If you are anti-incumbent because you don’t like the way the government is getting bigger and spending more, you’ll either stay home or vote Republican,” Souder said.

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who lost his Senate primary to Martha Coakley last year, said there is more awareness among members about their need to campaign hard this year — especially after Scott Brown defeated Coakley in January.

After hearing of the frustration in Congress on the campaign trail, Capuano later told his Democratic colleagues, “You’re screwed.”

Capuano on Wednesday maintained that his advice was that unless legislators focused on the economy and jobs, they could be headed for a loss this fall.

Bob Cusack contributed to this article.