Incumbents, Don’t Get Too Comfortable

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Cook Political Report moved newly indicted Republican Duncan Hunter’s seat from “Safe Republican” to “Lean Republican” on Wednesday, it marked the 90th Republican-held seat now considered at least somewhat contested in this election cycle, compared with 150 that remain safe. Leaving aside what that says about election outcomes, it’s worth noting what that also says about the House of Representatives.

One of the things people like to say is that with the current levels of partisan polarization and the ever-increasing skills of the gerrymanders, members of the House should be far more worried about primary election challenges than winning in November. It’s certainly true that there are plenty of safe seats — and on the Democratic side this year, only 14 of their 195 seats are in any trouble at all. 

So where is the real danger to sitting members of the House?

One can make the case either way. The case for worrying about renomination is pretty simple. Well under half of all members are safe this November. Most of those who are in some danger will survive; among those 90 vulnerable seats are 26 rated “Likely Republican,” and it wouldn’t be surprising if every single one of those stayed Republican, along with most of the 27 “Lean Republican” seats. On the other hand, any seat, in any cycle, can suddenly become vulnerable to a primary challenge. And besides: A fair number of the 90 vulnerable seats, including many of those which will ultimately flip, are vacant ones with no incumbent running. So those, one might argue, are not really evidence that sitting members of the House are in trouble.

On the other hand? Yes, any sitting member could get a nomination challenge — but few do, and even fewer lose. With most the primaries behind us, only three have lost that way so far, certainly fewer than the number of incumbents who will lose in November. 

It’s also probably true that 90 is a low estimate of vulnerable Republicans. Go through Cook data for the full year, and then check with other similar analyses, and I suspect at least another dozen seats have been (or are now) in some danger over the course of the campaign. And yes, it’s correct to count open seats (one can argue) because many members retire in the face of serious electoral challenges, rather than losing a primary or general election. 

In fact, for a long career in the House, members need to build up strong representative relationships with their districts so that they can withstand anything — in-party challenges, terrible years for their party, or scandals that can endanger them in either the primary or the general election. Yes, most House incumbents win in any particular cycle, but they do so in large part because they work hard at it.

So should incumbents fear the primary most, or the general? As I always say: Politicians are always paranoid; it’s just a question of what they are paranoid about. A big part of what matters is not the objective answer to that question, but the subjective beliefs of politicians. In recent cycles Republicans seem to have come to believe that primaries were way more dangerous, and that belief had important consequences even if it was a mistaken one. Perhaps a Democratic landslide against them this year would shift them back to worrying more about November. Perhaps not. 

1. Dave Hopkins on Ted Cruz

2. John Hudak at Brookings on the mechanism and the politics of impeachment. I generally agree, but I do think that among the possibilities is one in which Republicans collectively decide to move on from Trump and he disappears from the party, and from politics in general, remarkably quickly. There is, of course, another possible outcome in which enough Republicans in Congress decide to get rid of him but others, and Republican-aligned media, sticks with him after removal. But I suspect that’s somewhat less likely.

3. Reihan Salam at National Review on conservatives and African Americans.

4. Megan McArdle on Manafort and Cohen

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O'Brien on Trump and loyalty.

6. Also here at Bloomberg Opinion: Shuli Ren on China and the trade war.

7. Adam Liptak on the Constitutional origins of impeachment. I should add here: Impeachment is almost certainly not going to happen this year, and more likely than not won’t happen at all. Nevertheless, once it’s at least a plausible outcome — and it certainly is — we’re going to get plenty of people thinking about it, and that’s going to generate links here. 

8. Speaking of which: Philip Klein argues that Trump simply isn’t unpopular enough for impeachment and removal. He might be correct; then again, Trump is in the middle ground, in which he’s a lot less popular than Bill Clinton in 1998 (and somewhat less popular than Ronald Reagan in 1987), but a fair amount more popular than Richard Nixon in 1974. 

9. Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight looks further into the House forecast.

10. And Matt Yglesias on Trump’s poll numbers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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