Oracle After Hours: Primary challenges foster integrity, better representation

Noah Walch, columnist

It isn’t difficult to pinpoint the beginning of the end of Representative Eliot Engel’s (D-NY) career. On June 2nd, Engel arrived at a press conference in the Bronx regarding protests against the murder of George Floyd, intent on giving remarks to his constituents. A microphone was already on as he pleaded for a chance to speak. “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” Engel said, repeating it for emphasis. Already plagued with accusations of disregarding his New York constituents, the hot mic incident saw Engel loosen his 30-year grip on his district. Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal and a primary opponent of Engel, seized on the moment as the primary grew nearer. On June 23, Bowman handed Engel his first ever electoral defeat, garnering 55 percent in the Democratic primary. 

While Engel’s loss may have been the most spectacular, it is not alone. Five Republicans and three Democrats thus far have lost their congressional primaries, a record number of defeats for a non-redistricting year. (Redistricting years see inflated numbers of primary losses because as political boundaries are redrawn, representatives must convince new voters and are sometimes pitted against one another). Challenges to an incumbent, even if unsuccessful, have become more common in the current political era, and if this trend continues, it will leave an indelible mark on American politics for years to come. For Democrats specifically, the rise of progressive politics has boosted left-leaning challengers into the national spotlight, and ultimately to Congress.

All three Democratic representatives that lost primaries in 2020 were substantially to the right of their opponents and all represent safely blue districts. Besides Engel, Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and Lacy Clay (D-MO) both lost to women who decided to try again after their unsuccessful races in 2018. Lipinski, an anti-abortion Democrat who voted against the Affordable Care Act, lost to progressive Marie Newman and Clay was narrowly defeated by Cori Bush, a nurse and pastor who was influential in the Ferguson activism movement in 2014. Alongside Bowman, these new representatives will push the House Democratic Caucus to the left in a manner reminiscent of the rise of in 2018.

But what the victories of Bowman, Bush, and Newman really mean going forward is that incumbents can no longer take their constituents for granted. As social media becomes more embedded into political campaigns, upstarts and progressives can find their base and mount a powerful offensive that was not entirely possible in years prior. House Democrats in safe blue districts are no longer as comfortable as they may seem, and the fear of a primary challenge drives them to stay connected with their district. 

The five Republicans that lost their seats showcase a different trend than is seen with the Democrats. While two GOP representatives lost the nomination to right-wing challengers, the other three incumbents defeated this year were in some way scandal-plagued, most notably Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who has come under near constant fire for his comments sympathetic to white supremacists. The other two, Ross Spano (R-FL) and Steve Watkins (R-KS), have been accused of campaign finance violations. These districts range from safely Republican to moderately competitive. Whether this push for good, ethical governance comes from disdain for misconduct or calculated electoral politics, its result ultimately increases the integrity of Congress and of politics.

These primary challengers are not going away anytime soon. They are becoming increasingly prevalent, and incumbent politicians see them as an existential threat. The people, however, on all sides of the aisle, should see them as an opportunity to foster ethical leadership or truly representative politics. If we truly hope to progress as a nation, this development is nothing but positive, and thankfully, it shows no signs of slowing down.