Keeping Score of Primary Challenges

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

What's your score?

Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

We need a better way to talk about poor nomination choices, especially the ones that result from primary challenges to incumbents. We need what we might call a Cantor score, named after former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was defeated in a primary in 2014. Imagine a scale running from 1 for a reasonable, well-deserved renomination defeat to 10 for a dysfunctional, self-destructive one. 

I don't know exactly how to reach these numbers. It probably can't be done in any objective or systematic way. But the idea is simple, and perhaps it's helpful to at least talk through it. 

Since parties define themselves by nominations, it's not only understandable but also often healthy for those who want parties to use primary elections for that purpose. But it's not healthy to constantly bicker for no important reason, to insist on narrowly defined purity at all costs, or to devolve into pointless factionalism.


For example, an incumbent who is out of step with their district and their party invites a challenge. A good example would be U.S. Congressman Dan Lipinski of Illinois, a Democrat who opposes abortion rights and voted against the Affordable Care Act, and generally is one of the most conservative Democrats in the House in a somewhat Democratic district. For Democratic party actors to seek to oust him certainly is an effort to make the party more liberal, but it doesn't risk losing the seat to Republicans. It would be very different if Democrats had gone after incumbent moderate senators in West Virginia and North Dakota, where Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp are probably as liberal as any Democrat could be in those states and still win. 

It needn't be overall ideology; sometimes a primary challenge is based on one issue, such as Joe Lieberman's support of the Iraq War back in 2006. 

Ineffectiveness in office is also a reasonable reason to support a challenge. Even advanced age might be a fair factor, as in the current primary challenge to Senator Dianne Feinstein in California. Feinstein is also relatively moderate for a state that has become more and more liberal, but it's not nutty to at least think about whether a senator who is currently 84 years old might be ready for a replacement, even if she's been on top of her game. 

It's easy to imagine lowering the Cantor score for an incumbent over (say) 80, and lowering it again based on incumbent ideology, state ideology and how safe the seat is for a party.

My guess is that Kevin de León's campaign against Feinstein, and Marie Newman's against Lipinski, would both score relatively low, and lower than Chris McDaniel's attempt to unseat Senator Roger Wicker in safely Republican Mississippi. 1 But I'm looking here less to guess at a hypothetical score than to think about what criteria we might use. 

Candidates themselves are obviously free to run as they see fit. This is mostly about the choices other party actors make, although it's also true that politicians should at least listen to cues from their party, even if they choose not to follow them. After all, as Seth Masket reminds us, parties still play a major role in nominations

1. Jason Miklian and Jennifer Oetzel at the Monkey Cage on corporate culture and the NRA

2. My Bloomberg View colleague Timothy L. O'Brien on Jared Kushner, easy mark

3. Marcy Wheeler on what Kushner might have been up to.

4. Harry Enten explains why no one should think the polls understate Trump's support. 

5. Jonathan Chait has a nice one about Carter Page as the next Alger Hiss

6. And a couple of "Black Panther" links: Naunihal Singh at the Monkey Cage on Wakanda and colonialism ...

7. ... while Dan Drezner looks at Wakanda's exceptionalism

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. And what score would David Brat's defeat of Cantor receive? Presumably a somewhat higher one, since Cantor was already a solidly conservative Republican, and his district was giving up the clout of having a member of the House leadership.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at

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