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The threat of the congressional primary and its haunting, driving influence on incumbent behavior

  • HVC-8, Captol Visitor Center (map)

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, in analyzing the validity of that threat, 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 primary-ed 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 longterm effects of this behavior.

Panelists:

James Wallner, R Street Institute

Elaine Kamarck, Brookings Institute