Record number of incumbents lose primary challenges

A record number of incumbents lost primary challenges in 2022.

Nearly one in 20 state legislators seeking re-election this year lost to rivals within their own party, becoming political casualties of redrawn legislative district lines and ideological upheaval wrought by voters.

At least 216 state legislators lost primary election contests this year, a figure substantially higher than in previous election cycles, according to tabulations by Ballotpedia, the nonpartisan election information website. The number of incumbents defeated before the November elections was 127 in 2020 and 142 in 2018, the last midterm election cycle.

The election immediately following the decennial redistricting process is typically more difficult for incumbents than ordinary election cycles, when some members are drawn into districts alongside their own colleagues and others must introduce themselves to thousands of new voters.

Still, this year also topped the 194 who fell to primary challengers in 2012, after the last round of redistricting.

Republicans have been particularly vulnerable to primary challenges in recent years, and never more so than in 2022. In the last four election cycles, Republican incumbents have lost to primary challengers at about twice the rate of Democratic incumbents. This year, almost three times as many Republicans have lost as the number of Democrats who were ousted, 153 to 63.

Voters in Idaho ousted an astonishing 18 incumbents, all Republicans, in elections that became an ideological battle between traditional business-oriented conservatives and the far right. While Gov. Brad Little (R) easily beat back an arch conservative challenge from his own lieutenant governor, many of his allies — including the chairmen of the Senate Commerce, Health and Welfare, Local Government and Taxation, and Education committees — went down.

Some strategists and observers attribute the unusual number of defeats to a broader engagement in politics, as incumbents who may have gotten comfortable in their seats suddenly find themselves facing a groundswell of opposition.

“More Republican candidates filed to run for office than in a generation. That guarantees more primaries than normal,” said Brent Buchanan, an Alabama-based Republican strategist. “With polarization increasing, the pendulum’s swing takes with it both general election and primary scalps.”

Nine Alabama legislators, including the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee, lost bids for new terms this year. Similar numbers of incumbents were defeated in Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina and Wyoming.

Voters in Pennsylvania and West Virginia ousted 11 incumbents. Among the victims in Pennsylvania were the chairs of both the House and Senate Appropriations committees. Some of the primary challenges were funded by unexpected sources: In North Dakota and North Carolina, incumbent governors backed candidates who tried to oust members of their own party.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R), a wealthy tech entrepreneur before entering public office, spent $1.2 million of his own money trying to oust members of an arch conservative faction of lawmakers known as the Bastiat Caucus, named after a 19th century French economist.

The political action committee Burgum funded scored wins in three state Senate contests and seven state House races, including one campaign that targeted House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jeff Delzer (R).

In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) helped fund Val Applewhite, a former Fayetteville city council member who ousted state Sen. Kirk deViere (D). DeViere voted for a Republican-drafted budget that did not include Medicaid expansion, a key Cooper priority.

Several legislators in Wyoming fell victim to a surge in turnout among conservative voters who were showing up to cast ballots in another race — the high-profile contest between Rep. Liz Cheney (R) and Harriet Hageman (R), an attorney backed by former President Donald Trump.

Dave Picard, a long-time Wyoming lobbyist tracking the contests, said most of the losers in his state were accused of being Republican in name only, or of the cardinal sin of backing Cheney.

“The Wyoming primary was certainly something we haven’t seen in our lifetime,” Picard said in an email.

The startling number of primary defeats, coupled with a surge in retirements by legislators both in leadership and among the rank and file, means a substantial number of legislators will be serving in office for the first time when sessions kick off in January.

At least 33 state House speakers, Senate presidents and majority leaders either announced their retirements or filed to run for another office this year.