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How Might a Primary Election Challenger Impact Governor Pence’s Re-election Chances?

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Dr. Raymond Scheele and Dr. Joe Losco
Bowen Center for Public Affairs

Following what was generally regarded as a poor performance by Governor Mike Pence during the controversy surrounding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), speculation raged regarding the possibility that the Governor would face one or more Republican challengers for the 2016 gubernatorial nomination in the GOP primary.  The speculation was not idle, since many in the Republican business community were alarmed by the negative publicity the controversy brought to the Hoosier state.  Some well-connected Republican insiders even hinted that they were considering entering a primary challenge, including Mitch Daniels’s former campaign chair, Bill Oesterle, and Fort Wayne businessman Bob Thomas.  While these challenges may not materialize, it is worth asking what the research shows about the impact of a primary challenge to a gubernatorial incumbent’s chances of reelection.

A 1975 article looked at the long term historical data in a comprehensive review of gubernatorial elections in all but 11 Southern states from 1903 to 1968.  Political Scientists James E. Pierson and Terry B. Smith[1] found that divisive primary election fights had no systematic impact on general election outcomes.  This result held true regardless of the candidate’s party, incumbency status, or level of party competition in the state. Beginning with 1970, there have been 41 incumbent governors in the 50 states challenged in their primary election for re-nomination.  Of those, 10 incumbents lost their post in the November election, for a percentage of 24.39 percent.

Nominating Indiana gubernatorial candidates in primary elections began in 1976, after Governor Otis R. Bowen supported removing nominations for that office from the party conventions to primary election voters.  Since then, only one incumbent governor has lost reelection.  Governor Joe Kernan, who was elected Lt. Governor on the ticket with Governor Frank O’Bannon, succeeded to the governor’s office upon Governor O’Bannon’s death in 2003.  Governor Kernan was not challenged in the 2004 Democratic primary, but the Republican nominee, Mitch Daniels, won the November election with 53.91% of the vote.  This unusual election, given Governor O’Bannon’s death, still resulted in a competitive general election contest.  Political Scientists define a “competitive election” as one in which the victor wins with less than 55% of the vote in a two-way race.

Overall, the odds favor incumbent governors, even when they are challenged within their own party in the primary.  But these odds do not guarantee that Governor Pence has a clear path toward reelection.  Elections hinge on many factors, including issues and mobilization of voters.  Even party identification can be volatile.  According to our 2012 Hoosier Survey, party identification was closely matched with nearly 30% identifying as Democrats, 26% as Republicans, and 36% claiming to be independent.  By 2014, these numbers changed, with 24% identifying as Democrats, 26% as Republican and the number of self-declared independents mushrooming to 42%.  The fate of incumbents also depends on the quality of the campaign advanced by the challenger.  Mitch Daniels showed that can make a difference in 2004.  A recent state poll by Bellwether Research showed Governor Pence running even with the two main Democrat challengers, John Gregg and Glenda Ritz. At this point in time, with energetic campaigns, either of these have a realistic chance to win the governor’s office in 2016.

[1] James E. Person and Terry B. Smith, “Primary Divisiveness and General Election Success: A Re-examination,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 37, No. 2 (May 1975), pp. 555-562.