Home>Congress>For primary challengers to incumbent House members, history isn’t on their side

David Larsen challenged Rep. Leonard Lance in the Republican primary three times and came within striking distance once. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

For primary challengers to incumbent House members, history isn’t on their side

Out of 84 primary challenges since 1980, only two have come close and none have won

By Nikita Biryukov, April 20 2020 5:59 pm

It happens every two years, when candidates like John Caramanna, Dennis Speed and Jeanne Martines emerge as self-proclaimed contenders for the U.S. House of Representatives in primaries against incumbents.

With eight of New Jersey’s twelve House incumbents facing challengers in the July 7 primary election, it’s helpful to look at the track record.

Primary challengers seeking to oust incumbent members of Congress have secured at least 33% of the vote just nine times over the last four decades.

Just two of the 117 of the people taking on members of New Jersey’s House delegation in primaries have faced over the 84 primary challenges held since 1980 came within striking distance of a sitting congressperson.

None of them have won.

Political unknown David Larsen challenged Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton Township) four times, securing more than a third of the vote in bruising primaries spurred by the rise of the Tea Party in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

Larsen, who ran at Lance from the right, only came close to ousting the incumbent once, when he won 46% of the Republican primary vote in 2014. He hovered under 40% in 2012 and 2016 and won less than a third of the vote in 2010.

Those challenges may have pushed Lance to adopt a more conservative policies on Capitol Hill and likely contributed to his eventual loss to Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes).

The only other candidate to nearly oust an incumbent was conservative Scott Garrett.

In 1998 and 2000, Garrett, then an Assemblyman representing the Sussex County portion of New Jersey’s 5th district, narrowly lost primaries against Rep. Marge Roukema (R-Ridgewood).

Roukema defeated Garrett by a 53%-47% margin in 1998 and by a 52%-48% in 2000.

But unlike the 12 primary challengers seeking to oust incumbents this year, Garrett had a political base and the support of establishment GOP leaders in Sussex and Warren counties against Roukema, a moderate Republican who entered the House after soaring to victory on President Ronald Reagan’s coattails.

Garrett won the seat after Roukema retired in 2002.

Party organizations also played a role in three remaining races that saw challengers get more than 33% of the vote.

In 1992, State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Piscataway), then the deputy minority leader of the State Assembly, ran a doomed primary campaign against Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch).

He was defeated handily, winning 37% of the vote against Pallone.

Middlesex County Democrats backed Smith in that race after the county lost its congressional district.

Rep. Bernard Dwyer, who represented the state’s 15th congressional district, did not seek re-election after his seat was eliminated in the 1992 reapportionment.

The New Jersey Globe’s count of primary challenges does not include a 2012 race between Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) and Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Englewood) because both were in office at the time.

Rothman challenged Pascrell after his district was done away with during 2012’s reapportionment, winning 39% of the vote as an incumbent challenging another incumbent.

Like Garrett, Rep. Donald M. Payne Sr. (D-Newark) didn’t get into Congress on his first or second attempt.

Payne, a former Essex County freeholder who lost a primary for county executive two years earlier, won just 23% when he launched a primary challenge to Rep. Peter W. Rodino, Jr. (D-Newark), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Rodino, who presided over the nationally televised impeachment hearings of President Richard M. Nixon, won 62% against Payne, former Newark Municipal Court Judge Golden Johnson, and former Essex County Freeholder Russell Fox.

Payne fared slightly better in 1986.

Rodino, then a 19-term white congressman representing a majority black district, had held onto the seat since 1972 with the blessing of Newark Mayor Ken Gibson.

A month before the 1986 primary, Gibson was ousted by Mayor Sharpe James, who endorsed Payne.

Payne, then a Newark South Ward councilman, had backed James for mayor.

James returned the favor, endorsing Payne over Rodino, and Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Newark to call for Rodino’s defeat.

Rodino still had the Essex County Democratic organization line, and several prominent African American congressmen — including Harlem’s Charles Rangel — came to New Jersey to stump for him.

Just a few days short of his 77th birthday, Rodino defeated Payne by a 9,920-vote margin, 59%-36%, in what became the legendary congressman’s last hurrah.

Payne won the seat after Rodino retired in 1988, taking the Democratic nomination with 73% of the vote against Newark City Councilman Ralph T. Grant, Jr.

In 1982, Rep. Jim Courter (R-Allamuchy) fended off a primary challenge from Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Harding) after significant changes to his district during the year’s reapportionment forced him to move into the 12th congressional district.

Courter’s residence was placed in the district represented by Roukema.

Frelinghuysen, then a three-term Morris County freeholder and the son of former congressman, Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen Jr. (R-Harding), won just 37% of the vote

He faced his own not-so-competitive primary challenge more than two decades later.

In 2014, Frelinghuysen faced a challenge from Rick Van Glahn, a conservative with no prior political experience.

Van Glahn won about 33% of the vote despite spending just $35,000.

While the surprise contender’s performance may have suggested a portion of the district’s primary voters did not think Frelinghuysen was conservative enough, it also may be an indicator that the incumbent was simply asleep at the wheel.

Van Glahn ran again in 2016 and lost to Frelinghuysen, 76%-24%, though the incumbent moved to the right following the 2014 challenge.

This year, twelve primary challengers are seeking to oust incumbents in eight congressional districts.

That’s the highest number of challengers since 1992 and the highest number of contested districts since 13 candidates sought to oust incumbents in 10 of the state’s 14 congressional districts in 1986.

If historical trends hold, one challenger will win more than 33% of the vote, and all 12 will lose, though given the disadvantages non-incumbents face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re likelier to underperform than overperform this year.

Still, an incumbent’s win isn’t guaranteed, said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.

“I think in addition to the element of surprise, being outraised and outworked and losing support within your party, I think the fifth ingredient is that you would need an opponent whose support was more fired up and whose supporters were just better motivated and working harder,” he said. “I think if all of those things happened at the same time, then you might have a fighting chance.”

Sometimes congressional primaries can be a springboard to another office.

Just out of the Marine Corps in 2004, 27-year-old Steven Fulop challenged then-Rep. Bob Menendez in the 13th district Democratic congressional primary.

Fulop was encouraged to run by Mayor Glenn Cunningham, who was battling Menendez, then the Hudson County Democratic Chairman.

Menendez beat Fulop by 28,771 votes, 87%-13%.

The following year, Fulop won the downtown Ward E seat on the Jersey City Council.

In 1994, Joseph Pennacchio, a dentist from Montville, challenged five-term Rep. Dean Gallo (R-Parsippany) in the Republican primary.

Gallo beat him by a 65%-27% margin, but the race launched Pennacchio’s political career, taking him to the Morris County Board of Freeholders in 1998, the State Assembly in 2001, and the State Senate in 2007.

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