Competitiveness of United States House of Representatives primary elections, 2012

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During the 2012 election, news of marquee primary battles was everywhere. The attention given to these battles, from U.S. Senate primaries to local state legislators, might make one think that close primary battles involving incumbents are commonplace.

In reality, only 13 U.S. House of Representative incumbents lost their primary bid in the 2012 primary elections for the House. Of those 13 races, eight of them constituted incumbent versus incumbent battles (due to redistricting). Therefore, in 2012, only five incumbents lost a primary election to a non-incumbent challenger.

While 393 incumbents ran for re-election in 2012, only 202 of them, or 51.40%, faced a contested primary in 2012. In other words, 192 districts held contested primaries involving incumbents. Compared to past years, 2012 was much more competitive than in previous years. According to a Ballotpedia study focused on primary competitiveness between 2004 and 2010, only 26.35% of incumbents running for re-election faced a primary in those elections. Therefore, in 2012, the number of incumbents who faced a primary almost doubled from the average challenged incumbents in the previous three elections.

Due to the redistricting that occurred between the 2010 and 2012 elections, 10 of those primary races involved incumbents running against each other. One race, CA-44, is not counted among these ten due to the top-two primary, also referred to as a blanket primary, system in California. This system allowed both of the incumbents to advance to the general election without any challengers.

Of these 193 districts, only 10 districts had a margin of victory (MOV) of 10% or less. Seven of those most competitive districts saw an incumbent lose, three of which were an incumbent vs. incumbent situation. The tightest race was Ted Yoho (FL-3) who defeated incumbent Cliff Stearns in the Republican primary. He won by a mere 875 votes, or a MOV of 1.4%. The three closest incumbent vs. incumbent races were:

Outside of these most competitive races, only one non-incumbent defeated an incumbent in a primary election. In PA-17, incumbent Tim Holden lost the Democratic primary election to Matt Cartwright by a MOV of 14.3%. Seven incumbent vs. incumbent races were decided with a MOV of 10% or more.

Despite the media's focus on tight primary races, roughly half of 2012 House incumbents coasted to the general election without a primary challenger. Even if he or she faced a challenger, only 5.1% of the races were within a MOV of 10% and the percentage of upsets even lower, at 2.4%. While Gallup's polling in 2013 averages Congress' approval rating at a dismal 15%, chances are high that any given incumbent will face an easy 2014 re-election.[1]

Most competitive incumbent primaries, 2012

Most competitive primaries involving incumbents in 2012
District Margin of victory Primary type Primary winner(s) Votes Runner-up candidate Votes Total votes cast
Florida's 3rd Congressional District 1.4% Ends.png Republican Ted Yoho 22,273 Cliff Stearns Incumbent 21,398 64,769
California's 31st Congressional District 1.84% Blanket primary Gary Miller (R) Incumbent & Bob Dutton (R) ** 16,708 & 15,557, respectively Pete Aguilar (D) 14,181 62,667
Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District 2.40% Electiondot.png Democratic Mark Critz Incumbent 32384 Jason Altmire Incumbent 30,895 63,279
New York's 13th Congressional District 2.68% Electiondot.png Democratic Charles B. Rangel Incumbent 16,916 Adriano Espaillat 15,884 38,506
Arizona's 6th Congressional District 2.96% Ends.png Republican David Schweikert Incumbent 41,821 Ben Quayle Incumbent 39,414 81,235
Ohio's 2nd Congressional District 5.8% Ends.png Republican Brad Wenstrup 42,482 Jean Schmidt Incumbent 37,383 87,168
Texas' 16th Congressional District 6.20% Electiondot.png Democratic Beto O'Rourke 23,261 Silvestre Reyes Incumbent 20,440 46,091
Oklahoma's 1st Congressional District 7.7% Ends.png Republican Jim Bridenstine 28,055 John Sullivan Incumbent 24,058 52,113
Illinois' 16th Congressional District 7.9% Ends.png Republican Adam Kinzinger Incumbent 45,546 Donald Manzullo Incumbent 38,889 84,435
Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District 8.05% Ends.png Republican Charles J. Fleischmann Incumbent 29,947 Scottie Mayfield 23,779 76,649
**Note: California uses a blanket primary system, where one primary is held with the top-two vote getters -- regardless of party -- advancing to the general election.

Least competitive incumbent primaries, 2012

In addition to the 201 primary races where the incumbent faced no challenger, many races were won by very large margins. Listed below are the least competitive primaries involving at least one challenger to the incumbent:

Least competitive primaries involving incumbents in 2012
District Margin of victory Primary type Primary winner(s) Votes Runner-up candidate Votes Total votes cast
Illinois' 9th Congressional District 83.70% Electiondot.png Democratic Janice Schakowsky Incumbent 48,124 Simon Ribeiro 4,270 52,394
Maryland's 8th Congressional District 84.42% Electiondot.png Democratic Chris Van Hollen Incumbent 35,989 George English 3,041 39,030
Indiana's 7th Congressional District 85.03% Electiondot.png Democratic Andre Carson Incumbent 34,782 Bob Kern 2,048 38,498
Maryland's 4th Congressional District 86.74% Electiondot.png Democratic Donna Edwards Incumbent 42,815 George McDermott 2,359 46,638
Maryland's 7th Congressional District 88.27% Electiondot.png Democratic Elijah Cummings Incumbent 49,625 Charles Smith 2,438 53,459

See also