2020 purge? Long-serving incumbents getting ousted in contested House primaries

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Members of Congress usually have the upper hand when they run for re-election. But this past week, two more House incumbents were ousted in contested primaries.

That brings to seven the number of sitting House members who’ve been defeated by primary challengers in the 2020 election cycle. While that’s not a record, the list includes some longtime veterans of Capitol Hill.


The four Republicans and three Democrats defeated in the primaries lost for different reasons. But there is some commonality.

“Usually someone takes their eye off the ball, loses touch with their constituents or becomes seen as a denizen or creature of D.C. … You can become really vulnerable really fast in a primary election,” said Republican strategist Colin Reed, a veteran of multiple Senate and House campaigns.

Here’s a quick look at the seven House incumbents who will be packing up at the end of the year.

Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo.

The 10-term congressman was defending a seat that’s been represented by his family for more than half a century. Clay succeeded his father – the late Rep. William Clay Sr. – who held the St. Louis-area seat for more than 30 years and was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus.

But he was edged out in Tuesday’s primary by Cori Bush, a younger and more progressive activist who came up through the Black Lives Matter movement.

(From left to right: Reps. Eliot Engel, Lacy Clay and Steve Watkins. (Getty/AP))

Clay – who topped Bush by 20 points two years ago – was defeated this time around by a narrow margin.

Bush, a 44-year-old nurse and ordained minister, says she got involved in politics in the wake of the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Her second bid to unseat Clay started grabbing momentum after the May death of George Floyd sparked national protests against police brutality against minorities and systemic racism. Also helping was the backing and support from some of the biggest names on the left – including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont

Rep. Steve Watkins, R-Kan.

As Clay was going down to defeat in Missouri, the first-term Watkins was ousted in Kansas.

Weeks before Tuesday’s primary, Watkins was charged with three counts of voter fraud for using the address of a UPS store rather than his home when registering to vote. The incumbent told voters he had made a simple mistake and argued that the charges were a political attack.

But Republican primary voters evidently disagreed, favoring GOP challenger Jake LaTurner, the state treasurer.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

Engel – who’s spent three decades in the House – is the longest-serving incumbent this cycle to lose. The powerful chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee was ousted by Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal and first-time candidate.

Riding a wave of support from some of the biggest names on the left – including Sanders,  Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and first-term Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — Bowman defeated Engel by double digits in the primary in a district that encompasses parts of the Bronx and portions of neighboring Westchester County.

The incumbent came under attack ahead of the primary for spending more time at his home in Potomac, Md., than at his apartment in the Bronx. And he was put on the defensive after he was captured on a live microphone suggesting that “if I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care” about speaking at an event in his congressional district.

Bowman, who is Black, started surging past Engel, who is White, during late May and early June amid nationwide protests sparked by Floyd’s death.

Bowman’s victory is being compared to Ocasio-Cortez’s blockbuster 2018 primary victory over longtime Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa

The outspoken Republican had been stirring controversy for years but kept getting re-elected by conservative constituents in his northwest Iowa district – until now.

After making comments defending the term “white nationalism,” King lost the support of fellow House Republicans and was stripped of his seats on committees. That was enough for state Sen. Randy Feenstra to oust King in the GOP primary.

Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill.

Lipinski – who’s served in Congress for a decade and a half – is one of the last anti-abortion Democrats on the Hill. He was defeated in his suburban Chicago district by Marie Newman, a vocal supporter of abortion rights and proponent of “Medicare-for-all.”

Rep. Scott R. Tipton, R-Colo.

Tipton – who has represented his rural Colorado district for nearly a decade – was endorsed by President Trump. That’s usually enough for a GOP incumbent to ward off a primary challenger.

But Tipton’s challenger was ultra-conservative Lauren Boebert, a vocal gun rights activist who kept touting that she was keeping the doors open during the coronavirus pandemic to Shooters Grill, her weapons-themed restaurant.

Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va.

Like Tipton, the first-term Riggleman – who represents a rural district – had the backing of the president. But he was defeated by social conservative challenger Bob Good at the party convention.

An apparent major reason for Riggleman’s ouster: Last year, he officiated the same-sex wedding of two campaign volunteers.

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