WASHINGTON (Oct. 29) – As we approach the midterm elections, both Democrats and Republicans are faced with significant intraparty divisions. This polarization manifests itself most clearly in the primary process and elections. However, congressional primary challenges are rare and incumbent defeats in those challenges even more rare. Despite this, members of Congress themselves are highly sensitive to primaries and adjust their behavior proactively to better defend against potential primary challengers.

In a new policy paper, Elaine C. Kamarck, senior fellow in the Governance Studies program and director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution; and James Wallner, governance senior fellow at the R Street Institute, examine this paradox, review the existing literature on congressional primaries, and develop specific expectations about how members perceive primary threats and the ways in which they adjust their behavior accordingly. In addition, they suggest additional avenues of research for scholars moving forward.

The authors go on to make the case that, despite their rarity, primary challengers are healthy for the system, if not so much for incumbents. Further, incumbents often overstate the threat primary contests pose. Indeed, much of the congressional dysfunction that is seen today can be attributed to how members structure the legislative process to protect themselves.

“For years, congressional primaries have been overlooked by election studies; ignored by journalists and scholars alike. However, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that the key to understanding factions in America’s political parties is to understand congressional primaries, and members of Congress’s attitudes toward these races,” said Brookings’ Elaine Kamarck.

R Street’s James Wallner adds, “[w]hile the links between primaries and polarization cannot be established using big data, the interviews with members of Congress presented in this paper illustrate that their attention to advocacy groups, which play in the primary arena, is a major source of today’s polarization.”