Incumbent politicians rarely lose elections in the United States, so when they do, it’s significant. It is even more newsworthy when an incumbent loses a primary election.
On August 8, three incumbent members of Congress lost their primary elections. All three were seen as supporters of environmental activist groups.
In Connecticut, political newcomer Ned Lamont defeated three-term U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman in the Democratic primary. In Michigan, former state Rep. Tim Walberg defeated first-term House member Joe Schwarz in the Republican primary. And in Georgia, Dekalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson defeated U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney in a Democratic primary run-off election.
Many factors led to the outcomes in these races, but Lieberman, Schwarz, and McKinney shared at least one characteristic: All three were rated highly by environmental activist groups for their votes while in office, and those same groups were not willing or able to mobilize enough voters and resources to help the candidates survive their challenges.
Green ‘Champion’ Defeated
Lieberman was called an “environmental champion” by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), and during the past few sessions of Congress his votes were rated very high by the LCV. During the 106th Congress (1999-2000) he scored a lofty 94 percent, and during the 107th Congress (2001-2002) he scored 88 percent.
During the current Congress, Lieberman greatly pleased activists by championing failed global warming legislation and voting against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas recovery.
Despite Lieberman’s high LCV ratings, the organization’s political action committee donated only $1,000 to his 2006 campaign. PACs can give up to $5,000 to a candidate per election, and the LCV has given the maximum amount to other Senate candidates for the 2006 elections, including Maria Cantwell of Washington (D) and Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania.
“Lieberman’s defeat was stunning for environmental activists because he not only voted with them, but he affirmatively championed their issues,” observed National Center for Policy Analysis Senior Fellow Sterling Burnett.
GOP Rejects Schwarz
In Michigan, Schwarz won a Republican congressional primary in 2004 by beating five other candidates. He easily won the general election that year in Michigan’s 7th District, located in the strongly Republican center of the state.
After taking office, Schwarz frequently sided with activist groups, pleasing the LCV and other national environmental groups but alienating much of his grassroots support back home.
For the 2006 race, Schwarz received $750 from the LCV and $2,000 from Republicans for Environmental Protection. That support could not rescue him from a Republican primary challenge, in which conservative challenger Tim Walberg beat him with 53 percent of the vote.
Schwarz’s primary defeat was particularly striking in that he outspent Walberg by nearly 2 to 1.
100 Percent Not Enough
McKinney, who represents Georgia’s 4th Congressional District, also was highly regarded by the LCV, receiving a remarkable 100 percent score from the organization during the 2006 Congress. During prior sessions she consistently received scores over 90 percent. McKinney was ousted in her Democratic primary.
“These races illustrate that grassroots America does not put much stock in legislators kowtowing to environmental activist groups,” said Burnett.
“For all the bluster of the environmental extremists, main-street America understands that these groups have an extremist agenda,” observed Burnett. “Being seen as too friendly with the activists can hurt a candidate such as Schwarz, while falling in line with environmental activists rarely if ever is a decisive positive factor in an election. Other issues are more important with American voters, so legislators should feel free to vote on the science rather than the propaganda.”
Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
For more information …
Data from the League of Conservation Voters is available at the organization’s Web site, http://www.lcv.org.
Data on campaign contributions is available at http://www.opensecrets.org, operated by the Center for Responsive Politics.