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Incumbents Beware

The 2012 congressional primary season is barely under way. But it is already a virtual certainty that the number of incumbent House casualties in this nominating season will be the highest in 20 years.

The reason: Redistricting. And it is not just the usual decennial redrawing of district lines around the country, but the fact that more incumbents of the same party are finding themselves paired together in the same district than is usually the case.  In both 1992 and 2002, four pairs of congressional incumbents faced off in the primaries. This year, the number looks as though it will be in the vicinity of 10. 

The post-World War II high for incumbent defeats in a single year of House primaries is 19. That came in 1992, when the confluence of redistricting and the House banking scandal wiped out nearly 5% of sitting House members before the fall campaign that year even began. The highest number of defeated representatives in a single primary season since then is eight (in 2002), meaning that 2012 is already shaping up as one for the electoral record books.

Just in the first five congressional primaries of 2012, five House members have gone down to defeat. All have been in districts across the “Rust Belt,” where a shrinkage in the number of House seats has created havoc. Two incumbents each lost primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and another was defeated in Illinois.

Three of this year’s congressional casualties were the result of “pairing.” Marcy Kaptur beat Dennis Kucinich in a battle of two veteran northern Ohio Democrats. Freshman Adam Kinzinger outpolled veteran GOP colleague Donald Manzullo in a revamped northern Illinois constituency. And Mark Critz edged fellow Democrat Jason Altmire in a western Pennsylvania face-off between two relatively new members.

Two other representatives have lost to non-incumbent challengers. The first was the combative Jean Schmidt of Ohio. She has been the target of opposition from inside and outside the Republican Party since she first won her Cincinnati-area seat in a 2005 special election.  A GOP primary opponent beat her in last month’s primary.   

The other House member defeated by a non-incumbent is Pennsylvania Democrat Tim Holden. The 10-term “Blue Dog” thrived for years in a Republican-oriented district. But he was thrust into a more Democratic constituency where he was upset April 24 by a well-funded political newcomer backed by an array of liberal interest groups.

In the months ahead, incumbent versus incumbent pairings are anywhere from quite possible to virtually certain in House primaries in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri and New Jersey – a group with contests evenly divided between sitting Democrats and Republicans. In addition, two pairs of Democratic representatives in Southern California must face off against each other in the state’s June 5 primary.

But with California’s new “top two” law sending the highest two vote-getters in the June balloting on to the general election regardless of party, incumbents Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the California 30th as well as Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson in the California 44th are not likely to see their intra-party battles settled until November.

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