Iowa U.S. Representatives have successfully defended each of their last 187 renomination bids over the last 66 years
Sioux City Republican State Senator Rick Bertrand turned heads earlier this month when he filed to challenge seven-term U.S. Representative Steve King in the state’s June primary for the 4th Congressional District.
King has not faced a primary challenger since entering Congress in 2003, after a competitive four-way race to secure the GOP nod in 2002 against fellow State Senator John Redwine, State Representative Brent Siegrist, and businessman Jeff Ballanger. [In that race, no candidate reached the mandatory 35 percent threshold in the primary and King subsequently defeated Siegrist on the third ballot at the district nominating convention].
No stranger to controversy with liberals, King has also endured scorn from some Iowa GOPers this cycle, particularly after backing anti-ethanol presidential candidate Ted Cruz before the Iowa caucuses.
As a result, Iowans – and King – are taking this primary challenge seriously, even though no incumbent from the Hawkeye State has lost a renomination bid during King’s lifetime.
A Smart Politics analysis of Iowa election data finds that every Iowa U.S. Representative running for reelection since 1950 has won their party’s primary – a string of 187 consecutive victories through 2014.
The last Iowan to lose a primary for a U.S. House seat was seven-term Republican John Gwynne in 1948 – one year before King was born.
Gwynne was first elected to the chamber in 1934 when he ousted Democratic freshman Albert Willford by 8.4 points in a cycle where Republicans lost 14 seats nationally.
Gwynne was challenged by journalist Harold Gross in the 1948 3rd CD GOP primary and lost by 11.4 points.
Since Gwynne’s loss, Iowa U.S. Representatives have rattled off 187 primary wins in a row with 16 other primaries held for open seats.
Prior to the 1950s, it was more common – though still unusual – for members of the nation’s lower legislative chamber from Iowa to lose their party’s nomination.
From the onset of the primary era in 1908 through 1948, approximately one in 20 incumbents running for reelection lost their renomination bids – nine out of 191 (4.7 percent).
Iowa passed its primary law on April 4, 1907 after a decade of lawmakers attempting to bring the power of the nominating process into the hands of the people. The first U.S. House primaries in Iowa were conducted on June 2, 1908.
In that 1908 cycle, five-term Republican James Conner was the first victim of the new primary law in a congressional race.
Conner lost in the 10th CD by 12.0 points to the state’s GOP central committee chairman Frank Woods.
Over the next four decades, eight other Iowa U.S. Representatives lost their renomination bids including Gwynne in 1948:
- Republican John Hull, 1910 (7th CD): The 10-term congressman lost by 13.2 points to attorney Solomon Prouty
- Democrat Sanford Kirkpatrick, 1914 (6th CD): The freshman lost by 6.4 points to W.H. Hamilton
- Republican Frank Woods, 1918 (10th CD): The five-term GOPer lost to attorney Lester Dickinson by 11.0 points
- Republican Harry Hull, 1924 (2nd CD): The five-term congressman was defeated by state judge Fred Letts by 4.4 points
- Republican Earl Vincent, 1928 (9th CD): The freshman had served only a shade over a month after winning a special election when he lost to attorney Charles Swanson at a July 11th nominating convention
- Republican C. William Ramseyer, 1932 (5th CD): After reapportionment, the nine-term legislator lost his party’s nomination by 11.3 points to fellow congressman Lloyd Thurston in a four-candidate field
- Republican Fred Gilchrist, 1944 (6th CD): The seven-term Republican lost to Fort Dodge School Board member James Dolliver by 5.4 points
Of the eight instances during the primary era in which Republican incumbents lost their party’s nomination, the GOP still held the seat all eight times in the general election.
The only instance of a seat flipping after an incumbent lost a renomination bid since 1908 came after the aforementioned Democrat Sanford Kirkpatrick was defeated in the 6th CD primary by W.H. Hamilton in 1914. Hamilton lost the seat for the Democrats to C. William Ramseyer that November by 6.0 points.
While the odds of a King upset in June are not favorable to Bertrand, the 4th CD is the best chance to see an Iowa U.S. Representative lose a renomination bid this cycle.
Republican Rodney Blum in the 1st CD does not face a primary challenger nor does Democrat Dave Loebsack in the 2nd CD.
Freshman GOPer David Young in the 3rd CD will face former State House nominee and retired Des Moines school teacher Joe Grandanette. Grandanette ran against Young and five other Republicans in 2014 for Tom Latham’s open seat but finished a distant sixth place in both the primary and subsequent nominating convention.
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