Congressional primary competitiveness, 2014
In general, primary competitiveness was low all around in 2014, not just in races with an incumbent seeking re-election. Of the total number of possible contested primaries, only about one third (39.5 percent) of races had more than one choice on the ballot.
Of the 435 U.S. House seats up for election in 2014, 429 were considered for this study. Louisiana was left out due to its lack of primary elections. Following each primary election, Ballotpedia staff measured the competitiveness of the primary elections in each state based on two factors: number of contested primaries and number of incumbents facing a primary challenge.
- Primary competitiveness
- This figure was calculated from the percentage of major party races in each state that were contested. In most states, this meant races in which there were two or more candidates running in the primary from the same party. However, California and Washington were measured differently due to their blanket primary system. In those two states, there was only one possible contested race in each district, and a race was considered contested if there were three or more candidates running in the primary election.
- Incumbent primary competition
- This figure was calculated from the percentage of incumbents who ran for re-election that faced competition in the primary election based on the same criteria as listed above.
Only 314 of the 795 possible major party primaries were contested in 2014. This amounts to 39.5 percent primary competition. On average, Republican primary elections were more competitive than their Democratic counterparts. Republican primaries saw 43.17 percent competition, while only 32.24 percent of Democratic primaries had more than one choice on the ballot. As expected, blanket primaries were the most competitive, with 76.19 percent having more than two candidates on the ballot.
The level of primary competition varied greatly between states. Five states (Connecticut, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah) featured no contested primaries, while in three states every major party primary was contested (Alaska, Montana and Washington).
Most competitive primaries
Even though there was no choice on the ballot in most primary races across the country, some races were won by extremely small margins. The four most competitive primary elections are highlighted below.
Tennessee's 4th Congressional District's Republican primary saw the smallest margin of victory of any race in the 2014 primary season. Scandal-plagued incumbent Scott Desjarlais defeated State Senator Jim Tracy by a mere .1 percent of the primary vote. Desjarlais received just 38 more votes than Tracy in this contentious race. According to Politico, there was no incumbent more likely to lose a primary than DesJarlais. This was due to sworn testimony from DesJarlais' 2001 divorce trial in which DesJarlais, a former physician and hospital chief of staff, acknowledged having sexual relationships with patients and even prescribing drugs to one of them.
|U.S. House, Tennessee District 4 Republican Primary, 2014|
|Scott DesJarlais Incumbent||44.9%||34,793|
|Source: Tennessee Secretary of State|
New York's 3rd
New York's 3rd Congressional District's Republican primary had the second smallest margin of victory of any race in the 2014 primary season and the least number of votes separating the primary winner from the loser. Grant Lally defeated Stephen Labate by .2 percent of the vote, or 11 votes. Lally faced incumbent Steve Israel (D) in the general election on November 4, 2014.
|U.S. House, New York District 3 Republican Primary, 2014|
|Source: New York State Board of Elections - Official Election Results|
Georgia's 1st Congressional District's Democratic primary was a very close three-way race between Brian Reese, Amy Tavio and Marc Smith. Reese came out .2 points ahead of Tavio, who beat Smith by 1.6 percent. As a result of the primary, Reese and Tavio advanced to a primary runoff election. However, that's when the race stopped being close, as Reese triumphed over Tavio by roughly 26 percent in the subsequent runoff.
|U.S. House, Georgia District 1 Democratic Primary, 2014|
|Source: Georgia Secretary of State|
Wisconsin's 6th Congressional District's Republican primary was also highly competitive in 2014. State Senator Glenn Grothman narrowly defeated fellow Sen. Joseph Leibham in the four-way primary for the Republican nomination. Grothman took in .4 percent or 219 more votes than Leibham. State Rep. Duey Stroebel came in third in the race and Tom Denow took last place in the election.
|U.S. House, Wisconsin District 6 Republican Primary, 2014|
|Source: Wisconsin Government Accountability Board|
Primary races in which an incumbent sought re-election were slightly more competitive than those without an incumbent running. An overwhelming majority of incumbents ran for re-election in 2014 and competed in a primary race. Just over 90 percent (387 out of 429) of U.S. House incumbents sought re-election in 2014. Of those incumbents who did run for re-election, 41.6 percent faced a primary challenger.
As was the case with general primary competition, incumbent competitiveness was higher within the Republican Party than it was in the Democratic Party. Of Republican incumbents, 45.85 percent faced a primary challenger, while 36.81 percent of Democratic incumbents seeking re-election faced a primary opponent.
The level of primary competition varied widely depending on the state the incumbent was from. Twelve states featured no primary competition for incumbents seeking re-election (At least one incumbent sought re-election, but no incumbents faced a primary opponent). Those states are as follows: Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Vermont. Conversely, in five states every incumbent seeking re-election faced a primary opponent. Those states are Alaska, Idaho, Nebraska, Washington and Wyoming.
Despite the overwhelming number of incumbents who sought re-election, only four, or just over 1 percent, were defeated in their primary this year. This figure may sound extremely low, but it is actually right on par with congressional elections of the past decade. The only outlier is 2012, where 13 incumbents were defeated. However, this was largely due to redistricting forcing incumbent vs. incumbent battles. Only five of the 13 were actually defeated by a primary challenger, while the remaining eight lost to a fellow incumbent.
Three of the four incumbents who lost their primaries in 2014 are Republicans (Ralph Hall, Eric Cantor and Kerry Bentivolio) while only one is a Democrat (John Tierney). These races are further detailed below.
Incumbent Ralph Hall (TX-04) was the first incumbent to lose his re-election bid. He faced five challengers in the Republican primary and received 45.4 percent of the vote, falling short of the majority required to avoid a runoff election. Hall was subsequently defeated by challenger John Ratcliffe in the runoff election by 5.6 points. At the age of 91, Hall is the oldest lawmaker to have ever served in the U.S. House. Hall's age was an issue in the race, and Ratcliffe portrayed himself as part of the next generation of conservative leaders.
In the most shocking upset of the primary season, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA-07) was defeated in the primary by challenger David Brat by a significant 11 percent of the vote. Cantor's defeat marks the first time in history that a House Majority Leader lost a re-election bid. Most signs pointed to an easy primary win for Cantor, including his massive fundraising edge over the challenger. However, increased voter turnout may have contributed to his defeat. Following his defeat in the primary, Cantor first resigned as House Majority Leader and then from Congress entirely.
In what is likely the least surprising incumbent defeat of the season, Kerry Bentivolio (MI-11) was defeated by David Trott in the Republican primary. In a decisive victory, Trott received nearly twice as many votes as the incumbent. Leading up to the election, Trott was consistently ahead in both polling and fundraising figures. Not one to give up, Bentivolio officially filed as a write in candidate for the general election. He stated that his intention was to bring out more Republican vote in the district and not to derail Trott.
Incumbent John Tierney (MA-06) was the final incumbent and only Democrat to go down in the primary season. Challenger Seth Moulton defeated Tierney and three other Democratic candidates in the primary on September 9, 2014. Moulton took in 50.8 percent of the vote to Tierney's 40.1 percent. Tierney was left vulnerable following a scandal surrounding his wife, who pleaded guilty to helping her brother file false tax returns in connection with his operation of an illegal offshore casino. Due to the scandal, he barely won re-election in 2012, and it likely contributed to his demise in 2014.
Full results on primary and incumbent competitiveness are broken down by state below.
|Contested Primaries during the 2014 Congressional Elections|
|State||Primary date||# of seats||Democratic contested primaries||Republican contested primaries||Contested Major Party primaries||% contested primaries|
|Contested Primaries involving incumbents during the 2014 Congressional Elections|
|State||Primary date||# of seats||Incs running||Democratic incs facing primary||Republican incs facing primary||% incs with primary|
- Real Clear Politics, "Congressional Job Approval," accessed October 10, 2014
- Tennessee Secretary of State, "August 7, 2014 Election Results," accessed October 21, 2014
- Politico, "5 House primaries to watch," accessed August 8, 2013
- New York State Board of Elections, "Official Election Results," accessed October 21, 2014
- Georgia Secretary of State, "General Primary/General Nonpartisan/Special Election results," accessed October 21, 2014
- Associated Press, "Georgia - Summary Vote Results," accessed October 21, 2014
- Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, "Canvass Results for 2014 FALL PARTISAN PRIMARY - 8/12/2014," accessed October 21, 2014
- Despite there being 435 seats in the U.S. House, Louisiana is excluded due to its primary system
- CQ Press, "Primary Elections and Incumbency," accessed October 28, 2014
- KMBZ.com, "Texas Congressman Ralph Hall Oldest to Ever Serve in House," December 26, 2012
- YouTube, "A New Generation of Conservative Leadership," February 24, 2014
- Smart Politics, "Eric Cantor 1st House Majority Leader to Lose Renomination Bid in History," June 10, 2014
- Federal Election Commission, "April Quarterly," accessed April 22, 2014
- Federal Election Commission, "April Quarterly," accessed April 29, 2014
- Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Cantor to resign from Congress Aug. 18," accessed August 1, 2014
- Michigan Secretary of State, "Primary Election Results," accessed October 17, 2014
- ABC 7 News, "Congressman Kerry Bentivolio files to run as write-in candidate," October 3, 2014
- Massachusetts Elections Division, "Primary election results," accessed October 17, 2014