The 2006 primary election will serve as an important yardstick as to the lingering outrage in the electorate from the legislative pay raise on July 7, 2005 and failure to deliver meaningful property tax relief in 2006. The potential for “revolution” exists, but will it materialize and what will it look like?
Evidence of the potential revolution exists in the fact that 2006 has more contested primaries (71) than any primary election dating back to 1980 (72). Since 1996, fewer than 30 House and Senate primary races have been contested each year. In addition, 30 incumbent General Assembly members chose not to seek re-election (leaving open seats), the most since 1982.
Six Senators face primary challengers this year, as many as the past five primaries combined. Sixty-five Representatives face primary challengers, which is more than the last three primaries combined.
While some anti-incumbency groups are pushing for a “clean sweep” ousting all legislators seeking re-election, historically, very few incumbents lose re-election campaigns. Past primary results indicate that challengers rarely win primaries, and provide a useful basis for benchmarking the May 16 primary election outcomes.
In the House, based on 13 primary election races since 1980, only 3.5 incumbent Representatives seeking re-election lost in primary races, on average (9% of House incumbents facing a challenger; 2% of total House incumbents). No more than four Representatives lost a primary race in any election year since 1984. Therefore, if House incumbents maintain their average rate of success in primary elections since 1980, only four out of 176 incumbents will lose to challengers. Even considering the high number of challengers in 2006, previous success rates predict that all but six incumbent Representatives will prevail at the ballot box on May 16.
In the Senate, based on 13 primary elections since 1980, no more than two incumbent Senators have lost a primary elections in any election year. Since 1990, only one incumbent running for re-election lost in a primary. Therefore even one victory by a challenger for a Senate seat on May 16 represents a break from the trend of the past eight primary elections.
The historical trend in Pennsylvania is that incumbents rarely lose because of advantages unavailable to challengers. If recent primary election history is our guide, only six House incumbents and not a single incumbent Senator will lose on May 16. By putting the results of the 2006 primary into historical context, Pennsylvanians will be able to determine whether or not this year is indeed a Revolutionary year in the Commonwealth.
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Nathan A. Benefield is a policy analyst and Jennifer A. Snyder is a research intern with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.