What can we learn from the 2016 primary elections? This article explains what the winning candidates had in common. I wrote a similar article in 2014.
They don’t call it the establishment for nothing Establishment candidates won many races. They have the inside track on fundraising, endorsements, and organization. Notably, several winning conservatives, including Beth Griffin, Tommy Brann, Shane Hernandez, Ben Frederick, and Scott VanSingel had substantial establishment support.
Be the establishment One answer to this is to become the establishment. Shane Hernandez is a former county party chairman. It takes time to build political connections, but it pays off eventually.
Experience counts Elected experience is valuable for winning candidates. Bob Howey, Steve Marino, Julie Alexander, Beth Griffin, Ben Frederick, Roger Hauck, and Curt VanderWall have all been elected to local office.
Incumbency Matters All incumbents won renomination. Beating an incumbent in a primary is very hard. The only times a conservative challenger beat a Republican incumbent in recent years are Tim Walberg in 2006 and Lee Chatfield in 2014. Certainly many incumbents deserve primary challenges, but conservatives have limited resources. Winning an open seat is much easier than beating an incumbent. Politicians can still be held to account when they run for other offices. Tom Casperson, Jason Allen, Tony Forlini, and (to a lesser extent) Phil Pavlov had bad voting records that contributed to losing their congressional bids.
There are still some benefits to primary challenges, though, as they may encourage the incumbent to vote better for awhile and may help the challenger to win an open seat later. John Reilly lost a primary challenge in 2014, but won an open seat this time.
Don’t Ignore Life Every candidate who won a Republican primary was endorsed by Michigan Right to Life (either solely or jointly).
Don’t split the vote Conservatives did much better this year than in 2014. Only in district 30 did a more conservative candidate likely lose due to vote splitting. Conservatives may have benefited from splits in the establishment in districts 20 and 72.
Money is essential Money does not guarantee victory, but it is essential to get your message out. This is particularly true in local elections, which are often decided by name recognition. Look at how much winning conservative candidates raised.
Bob Howey 57K
Steve Marino 69K
John Reilly 46K
Julie Alexander 86K
Beth Griffin 81K
Tommy Brann 77K
Shane Hernandez 35K
Ben Frederick 101K
Scott VanSingel 49K
The candidate who raised the most money won in 19 of 26 primaries in open Republican seats (three others were very close seconds). I have written before that the minimum amount needed to be a credible candidate is $30,000. This year, there were three open Republican seats where no Republican raised that much (79, 99, 108), though all those winners were over $20,000. Only two winners raised less than $20,000. Jeff Noble raised 16K, had Tea Party support and the endorsement of Pat Colbeck, and pulled the upset in district 20.
Exceptions are exceptional There is one huge exception to the above points. Steven Johnson, an unemployed 25-year-old military veteran and Christian constitutional conservative won district 72 with 30% in a five candidate field. He raised only 6K (most from him and his parents) yet beat two well-funded candidates and two elected officials. This mirrors Aaron Miller’s similarly unlikely win in 2014. So it is possible for a candidate who works hard to catch on with voters without the usual advantages. But it definitely isn’t the way to bet, and it shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore the usual path to victory.