Primary School

NYT fails on why—or even if—freshmen reps will face GOP challenges

On its front page yesterday, The New York Times explained that freshman Republican congressmen are feeling frightened. The cause, em dash please—other aspiring freshmen Republicans.

Readers of “Freshmen Fear Primary Fights in House Races,” reporter Jennifer Steinhauer’s article, could be forgiven for being left feeling that nearly no freshman Republican will go unprimaried, and that this is unusual.

Does this trend really exist, and if so, how big is it? Steinhauer indicates that only “at least a half dozen” individuals are considering challenges to one or another of the eighty-seven members of the Republican freshmen class. She gives us Weston Wamp, in Tennessee, who is “taking a serious look” at Chuck Fleischmann’s seat and Texas State Representative Raul Torres, one of two whom is giving some thought to a run against Texas freshman Blake Farenthold. Add to these cases, “heated chatter,” which suggests there may be many more challengers … considering.

And all this considering, is it really a trend? How many freshmen legislators are typically primaried, and is this election cycle so unusual? Steinhauer gives us no idea, though a reader might think that freshmen congressmen have never faced more fraught times—Farenthold complains the 2012 primary “started the day I took office.”

The article also does a poor job explaining why this supposed trend is so. Steinhauer throws up a whole host of possible explanations, none with enough detail or attribution to make them stick.

Maybe it’s because freshmen Republicans got to Washington and lost their principles and anti-establishment cred (before they found their way to the Cannon Congressional Room)? Or because their unexpected success has empowered others to think they can do the same? Or because voters are impatient and unrealistic?

Or maybe it has something to do with redistricting, which has made races more appealing to potential Republican candidates? Or maybe these freshmen just aren’t very good at their jobs? Maybe it’s all these things.

Or none of them: Wamp says he is inspired by his father’s record of public service.

Steinhauer may be on to something, but for readers to be convinced, the subject deserves some clarity and a more sincere attempt at explanation—particularly given its prime front page placement.

Whatever forces might be at work in these potential contests, research suggests that a conventional explanation for the cause of many primaries—that the incumbent has been insufficiently partisan—doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Robert Boatright of Clark University finds that while the rhetoric of primaries—particularly within the Republican Party—is often used in an effort to push moderate incumbents to more ideological extremes, primaries most often result from scandal or “the perceived ineptitude of the incumbent” or as a result of redistricting or racial divisions.

These opportunistic explanations undercut the claim Steinhauer quotes from a Tea Party activist, Beth Martin, that many primaries will be ideologically motivated. And while elements of the Times piece suggest this wider breadth of factors, the diversity could have been much more clearly explained.

More than anything, Steinhauer uses the article to effectively caricature freshman legislators as a uniquely silly and scared breed, reminding us in her opening sentence that this is a breed that has just now—six months in—found their way around Capitol Hill and discovered agreeable tuna salad.

The article’s star character, Farenthold, a former radio talk show host, who shocked even the Republicans when he won his seat by 799 votes, plays well to the type. We learn less about his politics, than his love for the limelight (two long paragraphs), whether as a contrarian voice on MSNBC or tweeter of shamelessly personal detail (“I like pizza but it doesn’t like me,” as Steinhauer reports).

These aspects of Farenthold’s election and tenure make him a juicy primary target—but they also make him an atypical member of his class. If only the Times had done a better job of explaining just how atypical the fact he may draw a challenge is as well.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , ,