Congressional primary elections are pinpointed as one of the leading causes of polarization on Capitol Hill and as a focal point of member action. However, analysis of the validity of that threat shows that since 1970, only 65% of re-election challenges have been competitive, with only 2.8% successful in unseating the incumbent. With such a slight rate of success, how has the threat of being primaried held such an influential effect on members’ agendas and actions? And how could it be that the liberal and conservative activist primary challengers have had such a polarizing effect on Congress if they only rarely win?
In their newly released paper, Anticipating Trouble: Congressional Primaries and Incumbent Behavior, Brookings Senior Fellow of Governance Studies Elaine Kamarck and R Street Senior Governance Fellow James Wallner take on this conundrum to answer the question of how incumbents’ behaviors change when considering the threat of a primary challenger and the long-term effects of this behavior.