It's shaping up to be a perilous election year for members of Congress, even in primary season when the iron law of incumbency typically prevails.
The defeat of two longtime incumbents in Maryland primaries last month stunned official Washington. It's a rare event for members of Congress to lose, but the new element in these races is the role of activist groups on the right and left in defeating incumbents deemed too conciliatory to the other side.
Meanwhile, the 2008 campaign is producing unusually high numbers of credible primary challengers. Reps. Ron Paul (R) of Texas and Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio curtailed their presidential campaigns to shore up support in Tuesday primary races – and the congressional primary season, unlike the presidential primary period, is just beginning.
"We've already seen as many incumbents knocked off in primary elections so far this year as were defeated in all of 2006," says David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report. "It's a 'change' election, so primary challengers have more leeway to establish viability through fundraising and through messaging."
In recent history, members of Congress have rarely faced credible primary opponents. Since 1980, the number of US House members defeated in a primary election can be counted on one hand, except when an incumbent faces an incumbent, as often happens after a decennial census and redistricting.
But the number of incumbents with viable primary challengers is rising: In the first 12 months of the 2008 election cycle, 21 House members – nine Democrats and 12 Republicans – face challengers who have raised at least $50,000. That's double the levels of the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, according to the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) in Washington.
"Many of these are not just individual challenges to individual incumbents, they are challenges supported by organizations that are engaged in battles for the soul of their respective parties," says Michael Malbin, CFI executive director. "While the absolute numbers are small, the percentage increase is significant because it's part of a larger story."
Nine-term Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) and eight-term Rep. Albert Wynn (D) were both supported by their respective party leaders – the national party campaign organizations don't take sides in primaries – but alienated key activist groups.
Mr. Gilchrest, one of two House Republicans who voted for a timetable to withdraw US forces from Iraq, fell afoul of the Club for Growth, an antitax group, over his votes on taxes, spending, and regulation.
"He was a big-government, tax-and-spend liberal, and it caught up with him," says former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, who is president of the Club for Growth. His organization spent $700,000 on advocacy ads in the race and bundled an additional $430,000 from the group's members for challenger Andrew Harris, a conservative Maryland state senator.
In 2006, the Club for Growth successfully backed primary challenger Tim Walberg over then-Rep. Joe Schwartz (R) of Michigan, a moderate. The group spent and bundled some $1.1 million in that race – its first win against a GOP incumbent.
Mr. Toomey says the Club for Growth has not decided whether to take on other GOP incumbents in 2008. Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina, the other Republican who voted with Democrats on a timetable to end the war in Iraq, also faces a primary challenge on May 6 from county commissioner Joe McLaughlin.
"Walter used to have a strongly conservative record on economic policy; unfortunately, his voting record has taken a turn for the worse," says Toomey.
At the same time, labor unions and netroot activists on the left are mulling over whether to target other so-called Bush Democrats, after defeating Representative Wynn in the Feb. 12 Maryland primary.
"Primary challenges are a wake-up call to Democrats that the people they work for expect results," says Ilyse Hogue, communications director for MoveOn.org Political Action, which backed community activist Donna Edwards in her challenge to Wynn.
Last December, the net-based group surveyed its members and found that 78 percent favored challenging Democrat incumbents "who had not kept promises" in 2008 primary contests. "Any elected representative not in Washington fighting for healthcare and the environment and to end the war will be fair game," Ms. Hogue says.
But she says that activists are engaged in a long-term campaign to make Democrats more accountable to ordinary Americans and the issues they care about. "We believe this is an effort that is really healthy for the Democratic Party ... and can only make for a more enthusiastic and engaged base in future elections," she adds.
But the key primary races this week are in Texas and Ohio. In Texas, Representative Paul raised $32.9 million in his presidential run, but since January he has faced an unexpectedly strong challenge from Friendswood City Councilman Chris Peden in the GOP primary.
"We have a great deal of admiration for him as a man, but he just doesn't vote with his party," said Mr. Peden, in a phone interview. "It's time for Republicans to be Republicans again."
While conservative talk-radio hosts cited private polls last month putting Paul 11 points behind the challenger, the first public poll by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C., released Feb. 28 shows Paul leading Peden, 63 to 30.
In Ohio, Representative Kucinich abandoned his presidential campaign in January to campaign to save his seat. A Feb. 27 poll, also by Public Policy Polling, shows Kucinich likely to win his first serious primary challenge in a race against four Democratic rivals on March 4. "It looks like Dennis Kucinich made a prudent choice ... when he decided to go home and campaign for reelection right before the South Carolina primary," said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, in a statement.