Electoral politics are remarkably stable. Incumbents win re-election 90 percent of the time. Money, especially early, is an excellent success predictor. Change comes slowly, mostly because the personnel seldom changes. So when change happens, it seems like a revolution has occurred. Nothing changed after Tuesday’s primary, but it was closer than it has been in a decade. Call it an “almost” revolution.
Incumbents mostly cruise in primaries. Not only do they almost always win renomination, they win by big margins. On average, primary challengers win less than 15 percent of the vote. Anything they get above 15 percent is a sign of an incumbent’s weakness.
What does north of 30 percent mean? The incumbent was in real danger of losing. Competitive races are rare, but the recent Kansas primary gave us three. The least competitive was the most surprising: Gov. Sam Brownback’s sub-30-point victory over unfunded and unknown Jennifer Winn. A 20-percent result for Winn would have been a moral victory. Earning 37 percent is massive. More than one-third of registered Republicans who voted rejected their governor. Brownback campaigned minimally, but the result still shows weakness.
The big question from Winn’s performance is whether anti-incumbency alone drove the vote or if the governor’s policy was the prime mover. Policy will get the headlines, but when no incumbent pulls more than 70 percent of the vote, there is a clear sentiment against current officeholders. Brownback is in trouble regardless: If core primary-voting Republicans have turned on him, undecided and unaffiliated general elect-ion voters likely have too.
First Congressional District Rep. Tim Huelskamp had the closest race. The challenger, Alan LaPolice, lost by 10 per-centage points after a compet-itive race. Would-be candidates with greater name recognition and access to money who opted out of the primary are now kicking themselves. LaPolice established himself with a successful shoestring campaign, leveraging Huelskamp’s uncom-fortable relationship with the eastern part of the district and winning 11 counties east of U.S. 281. Should he choose to run again in 2016, LaPolice could send Huelskamp packing, al-though Tuesday’s result would likely entice a flood of candid-ates to enter that race.
The anti-incumbency senti-ment was so strong that a one-note amateur candidate, Milton Wolf, seriously challenged multi-term U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts. A 17-point win over the Tea Party darling after a campaign whose message focused on where Roberts sleeps portends poorly for the incumbent. Unless Demo-crats shift money to Chad Taylor, who eked out a limp 53-47 victory against Patrick Wiesner in the Democratic gubernatorial pri-mary, look for Greg Orman, an independent, to push Roberts hard in the general election. Since Democrats now sense op-portunity in the governor’s race, expect them to double-down on their nominee, Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis. That spells catastrophe for other Democratic candidates like Taylor and Jean Schodorf, who desperately need Dem-ocrats to share the wealth for any hope in November.
Population centers were the other story. Sedgwick County, with around one-sixth of all primary voters, turned out for Mike Pom-peo but kept Roberts’ numbers lower than his statewide average. Johnson County went for Wolf even more than Sedgwick County did, the challenger winning there and making Roberts sweat Tuesday night. Voter turnout will swell in November, making Sedgwick and Johnson counties the places to watch on Election Day. If both counties break the same way, it would be hard for any statewide candidate to overcome the ad-vantage they provide.
The revolution has not hap-pened — yet. But voters have their torches and pitchforks out. The primary was a warning that revolt may be at hand.