One of the more interesting conversations every year is whether or not any members of the Senate will be taken down in a primary, and despite the spotty track record of Senate primary wins, the topic always arouses interest. Over at PredictIt, you can even bet on 2022 Senate primary odds.
And there is value to be had.
Will any incumbent senator lose a primary?
|Outcome||Dec. 28, 2021 Price||Equivalent Odds|
History Leading Into 2022 Senate Primary Odds
The last successful primary challenge to a Senator was 2012, when Dick Lugar lost his primary in Indiana to Tea Party Republican Richard Mourdock for the supposed sin of being insufficiently conservative for primary voters in the Hoosier State.
2010 saw a couple. Bob Bennett in Utah didn’t even making his primary ballot because he came in third at the convention to pick the two candidates for the primary ballot. Lisa Murkowski lost her primary in Alaska (and then subsequently winning as a write-in).
On the Democratic side, Arlen Specter lost his 2010 primary to Joe Sestak, but Specter had been a Republican Senator for years before crossing the aisle. So that primary loss is a different beast. Since then, the closest we’ve come was in 2014, when Brian Schatz almost lost his Hawaii primary, but he did win in the end.
It’s not totally uncommon, but other than the Tea Party waves, Senate primaries tend to only work if a Senator has a scandal break and they insist on running again. These circumstances made a relative nobody come close to beating Bob Menendez in New Jersey in 2018, but even there, it wasn’t really that close.
2022 Senate Primary Odds: Who Is Vulnerable?
At the beginning of the election cycle, there were a few Senators who could have been at some risk of a primary, but all of them have retired rather than face the voters. Go down the list of GOP Senators who could have been vulnerable to Trumpian primaries and the list is full of retirements.
Rob Portman in Ohio has always been an independent thinker, the first Republican Senator to support gay marriage, and a collaborator with the Biden Administration, but he has announced he won’t run again.
Roy Blunt in Missouri and Richard Shelby in Alabama are both Mitch McConnell loyalists who could have been theoretically at risk for being DC insiders in a party that hates DC, but both have decided to not run again.
Primary efforts from both Matt Gaetz and Ivanka Trump against Marco Rubio in Florida were explored before being rejected, presumably because neither would come close.
Richard Burr in North Carolina was absolutely facing a primary had he run again, but insider trading allegations cemented the end of his career.
Ron Johnson in Wisconsin might not run again, but that race is frozen by his decision. If he runs, he’ll face token opposition (if even that). If he doesn’t run, that’s when other serious Republicans would enter the race.
The pickings are slim if you’re trying to find a plausible Democratic primary challenge. None of the competitive Senators are at any risk, no serious California Democrat is going to run now when Dianne Feinstein’s seat is expected to open up in the next cycle, and Pat Leahy’s retiring for age reasons in Vermont.
The much-vaunted Chuck Schumer primary challenge from his left has never come, as anyone who understood New York politics could have said months ago. No credible progressive has been willing to throw away a career for the right to get creamed in a primary and end said career.
No Democrat is going to face anything resembling a serious challenge.
What about Alaska?
The list of Republicans who could get primaried is slim because all of the plausible targets are retiring. Except Alaska, but that doesn’t count.
The rule is very clear – for Yes to win, the Senator has to lose his or her Primary election. Murkowski, whatever one thinks about her chances in a general, is going to make the ranked choice general election ballot as a top-four finisher in the summer primary ballot.
Her making that ballot and then losing to a Republican in November would not qualify as a Senator being primaried, for the purpose of the rule.
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What about the successful House primaries of 2020?
Now, given Murkowski doesn’t count for the purposes of this rule, what’s the case for why a Senator might get primaried? It probably starts with the high number of successful House primaries in 2020, and the fact that there are nominal primary challengers in most states, but the argument’s thin.
Those successful House primaries of 2020 fell into three categories. The first is deadwood being gotten rid of, like Steve King in Iowa, where the GOP establishment were perfectly happy to see his controversial views exit the party.
The second category includes progressive challengers beating centrist incumbents, like in New York 16 and Missouri 1, and then Colorado 3, where the GOP incumbent got caught by surprise.
Given there’s no credible left-wing primary challenger for a Senate seat this year and no incumbent with anything close to the baggage of King, the only option left would be that one of these safe state Republican Senators gets caught flat-footed, and that won’t happen.
Mitch McConnell’s greatest source of leverage within his caucus is his ability to protect his members from primaries. In both the Tea Party era and now in the Trump era, McConnell has faced members with headwinds at home and mostly avoided losing his members to challengers.
Yes, losing Bennett and Lugar were bodyblows, but the Lugar loss was also a wake up call to the party, as Mourdock lost that race due to comments about abortion and rape that doomed his campaign. McConnell hasn’t had an incumbent lose a primary since then, and he won’t now.
If James Lankford in Oklahoma or Todd Young in Indiana actually find themselves in the sorts of trouble that pro-Trump primary challengers hope they’ll end up under, then McConnell will find his way to supporting his incumbents, because he has to.
To lose one or more loyalists as the Senate GOP is remade to be a slightly more Trumpian brand of conservative would be both an attack on McConnell’s leadership and a blow to the kind of party he wants the GOP to be, and could easily hasten his relinquishing of the leadership.
It is too early to say that there is no chance a Senator will be primaried, given the theoretical ability for some unknown scandal to strike somebody between now and primary day, but unless something truly unforeseen is lurking in the shadows, this price is absurd, and there won’t be a Senator lost to a primary challenge.