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Incumbents fared worse in Idaho primaries than the national average

Incumbents fared worse in Idaho primaries than the national average

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
July 30, 2010

The May primary election for the Idaho Legislature broke some national trends that see incumbents or candidates spending lots of money as more likely winners.  Incumbents and big spenders, which are often one and the same in election contests, still fared better than challengers across the state, but didn’t have the high level of success as in other parts of the United States.

Six incumbents, all Republicans, went down in the May 25 primary election out of 31 incumbents who had challengers.  That 19 percent primary turnover is almost double the rate among the 24 states that have had primaries so far this year, 8 percent.  That rate is also higher than in 2006, a comparable election year, when just two of 19 incumbents lost.

“Money typically wins, as does incumbency, and with the two combined, they’re pretty powerful elements to a campaign,” said Denise Roth Barber, the research director for the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which runs the website FollowTheMoney.org.  She said number of sitting lawmakers who lost in Idaho seems to break from the national trend for 2010.  “That is high compared to what we’ve experienced in all 24 states.”

Five of the six incumbents who lost also outspent their challengers, according to reports filed with the Idaho secretary of state.  The lone exception was Rep. Rich Jarvis, R-Meridian, who was outspent by John Vander Woude, a former state lawmaker.

Besides the incumbents, five other candidates who outspent their primary opponents lost.  That list includes Democrat David Maestas, spent more money than Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, though Stennett had a larger campaign war chest.  Other bigger spenders who proved fruitless were Shaun Wardle, who challenged Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, and Dane Watkins, who lost a GOP primary to fill the seat of Rep. Russ Mathews, R-Idaho Falls.

The other two Republican hopefuls who lost in primary campaigns for the Idaho House, Duane Rasmussen in a district in north Idaho and Greg Ferch in Boise, were both the largest contributors to their campaign.  Rasmussen loaned more than $22,000 to his campaign, which spent $27,000, and Ferch loaned $5,000 to a campaign that spent $10,600.

Roth Barber said self-funded candidates don’t fare well in legislative elections, according to her institute’s research.  She couldn’t pinpoint a definitive reason why, but said such candidates may spend more time promoting their campaign rather than connecting with voters.  “If you don’t have to get out and beat the pavement and raise money to run a campaign, you’re not engaging with your voters as much,” she said.

Though all the sitting lawmakers voted out in Idaho were Republicans, that trend doesn’t stay true for the rest of the country.  Out of the 55 state lawmakers who have lost in their primaries so far this year, 29 were Republicans, while 23 were Democrats and three lost in non-partisan races where voters pick the top two candidates.

Roth Barber said that so far this year there hasn’t been an unusually strong wave of anti-incumbent results  coming from the ballot box.  However, many states still have not held primary elections, and the general election on Nov. 2 could bring in fresh faces to legislatures in Idaho and across the country.

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