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Primary Colors

Defeating the Incumbent…in Your Own Party

Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas– that’s him in the photo when he was at the height of his influence – still holds the record as the longest serving Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He created the Fulbright Scholars program, was himself a Rhodes Scholar, at a young age the president of the University of Arkansas and in the 1960’s an early opponent of the Vietnam War. None of that seemed to matter much when he lost re-election in his own party’s primary in 1974. When Bill Fulbright died in 1995, The New York Times called him a “giant” of the Senate, but he’d once been rejected by his own kind.

Burton K. Wheeler of Montana was arguably the most powerful politician that state has ever produced. Elected four times from 1922 until 1946, he was one of the Senate’s great mavericks, battling presidents of both parties and forging a bi-partisan political movement in Montana. He lost re-election in 1946 in his own party’s primary.

In 1946, Sen. Robert M. La Follette, Jr. of Wisconsin seemed like a sure thing for re-election. He’d been in the Senate since 1925 having replaced his famous father who was regarded by many as one of the Senate’s greats and hated by some for being a dangerous radical. Young Bob lost his re-election by just a shade over 5,000 votes to a young, mostly unknown Republican by the name of Joe McCarthy.

An incumbent United States Senator losing in his own party primary is rare in our history – very rare – but that may be about to change as more and more Republicans face challenges from the far right of the GOP.

I wrote yesterday of the struggle Sen. Richard Lugar is facing in Indiana. Sen. Orrin Hatch is in trouble in Utah where his former colleague Bob Bennett was taken out two years ago. For a while it appeared Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of the least conservative GOP Senators, would also have a tussle with a Tea Party-inspired opponent this year, but that challenge seems to have faded. Still, Maine may be the exception that proves the rule.

[BREAKING NEWS: Late today, Sen. Snowe announced she will not run for re-election in Maine.]

Of the historic and contemporary examples I’ve cited, only Wheeler’s post-war experience in Montana, is an outlier. In every other case, the incumbent senator faced a challenge from the right. Wheeler’s demise was orchestrated from the left, primarily because he fell out of favor with some elements of organized labor in Montana. Generally speaking – and of course there are exceptions like Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut – imposing party discipline in the form of a primary challenge is a tactic employed by conservatives against someone who isn’t perceived as being conservative enough.

With the GOP more and more a branch of the Tea Party, look for more primary challenges to Republican incumbents and color the vast majority of them bright red.