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Rejecting the top picks — Why former prominent Republicans keep losing primaries

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Republicans have seen a fairly shocking result this primary season: Five former governors or senators, candidates who would normally be overwhelming favorites in primaries, went down to defeat when they sought the party’s nomination for a new state-wide job. This is not simple anti-incumbent fervor: It is more about anti-experience. And for the Republicans, it well predates the rise of Donald Trump.

Political parties are usually thrilled by the possibility that a former or sitting governor or senator will run for a new office. These candidates don’t have to be reintroduced to the electorate and have a proven track record of success state-wide. Witness the 2016 Indiana Senate race, when former Senator and Gov. Evan Bayh made a last-minute entry into the race. The Democrats’ presumptive nominee, Congressman Baron Hill, immediately dropped out so the party could run Bayh in a challenging (and ultimately futile) general election race.

But this year, Republicans in Alaska, North Carolina, Missouri, Nevada and Georgia all lost in their attempt to regain higher office, the most since 1986.

Each had their own unique set of circumstances. Admittedly, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin arguably shouldn’t count, as there was no primary; she was defeated in a ranked choice voting system to fill a vacant Congressional seat. Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens had resigned in disgrace as governor before running for the Senate; Former Georgia Sen. David Purdue faced off against an incumbent governor, albeit one who earned the enmity of former President Donald Trump; Former Nevada Sen. Dean Heller was disliked by Trump, and former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory somehow gained Trump’s opposition as well. Only one Republican former elected governor or senator was successful in a return-to-office nomination battle – former Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who is running to take back the governor’s mansion.

In the past, we’ve seen that both parties regularly, though not always, back these former statewide champions. But since 2010, we’ve witnessed a change focused on one party. In that year, the Tea Party movement helped push the Republicans to reject top candidates in favor of people with vastly less electoral experience.  

Republicans used to be the party more likely to back experienced candidates. In the 1980s, 14 Democrats lost races in this fashion, while only one Republican did. But since 2010, the situation has been completely reversed.

The change for Republicans seems to have started in Delaware, where former governor (and then-current representative) Michael Castle ran to replace Joe Biden. Castle was seen as the overwhelming favorite, not just in the primary but also in the general election. Instead, Castle lost to Christine O’Donnell, who was best known for saying she was an ex-witch. The result was disastrous for Republicans, who not only lost a very winnable race, but have not been close to winning in the state since.

Also losing that cycle was: incumbent Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who dropped out of a run for the U.S. Senate after badly trailing Marco Rubio and then ran as an independent, where he lost; sitting Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who lost against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry; and an odd aborted run by former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, who sought a Florida Senate seat. Furthermore, scandal-tarred Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons lost a reelection primary, as did Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched parties during his term.

Since then, other prominent Republican former governors and senators lost primary campaigns. In 2018, Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty was defeated in a run for a Senate seat, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman lost a return to office race in 2020.

In that time, no Democrat lost a comparable primary run.

Only four Democrats (all former governors) lost primary runs in their party. But unlike the Republicans, these races were generally for lower tier positions — former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn lost an attorney general race; former New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer lost a race for city comptroller, and Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie lost in his race for Honolulu mayor. The one exception was Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano, who lost a reelection run, which is generally a different animal. In fact, the last time a Democrat former governor or senator lost a return to high office was 20 years ago.

There has been talk of an “anti-experience” focus for the Republican Party for some time; after all, Donald Trump was only the second candidate ever to win a major party presidential nomination without first holding high electoral, appointed or military office. But looking at the recent failure of Republican governors and senators to capture primary races, we can see a party turning hard away from elected experience.

Joshua Spivak is the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.” He is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and a senior research fellow at the Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center. He also writes the Recall Elections Blog.

Tags Charlie Crist Christine O'Donnell David Purdue Dean Heller Donald Trump Eric Greitens Evan Bayh experience MAGA Republicans Neil Abercrombie Pat McCrory Paul LePage Primary elections Republican Party Sarah Palin Tea Party movement trumpism

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