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Democrats Scored a Big, Unexpected Win in the May 8 Primaries

Democrats Scored a Big, Unexpected Win in the May 8 Primaries

For the first time in 2018, an incumbent U.S. House Representative has been ousted by a primary challenger. Republican U.S. House Rep. from North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District Robert Pittenger lost his primary bid to pastor Mark Harris by 2 points on Tuesday night, arguably the biggest development in a series of contests that evening besides (maybe) West Virginians not nominating a man who called Mitch McConnell “Cocaine Mitch.”

Pittenger’s loss has big ramifications for Democratic efforts in North Carolina’s 9th District in November. Because of a classic electoral advantage incumbents receive in U.S. elections, Democrats’ chances of taking the seat in the fall midterms have more than doubled to 45%.


NC-09: Republicans lose key advantages from Rep. Pittenger’s candidacy

Primarily, at the hands of Mark Harris, Republicans now do not have the advantages that fielding an incumbent representative presents in a district. This is an easily quantifiable phenomenon. Whether it be because incumbents have bigger war chests to spend on reelection efforts, because they have valuable name recognition, or something else, they generally perform better than their unelected counterparts.

In an analysis I wrote last summer, I found that incumbency was worth roughly 7 percentage points in the 2016 U.S. House elections. That is, incumbent Democrats saw a 7 point increase in their expected margin of victory over Democrats running in open seats. The advantage was roughly equal for Republicans.

So what does that mean for the November midterms?

In NC-09, this means that where the Republicans had a ~7 point advantage1 over a generic Republican by having Rep. Pittenger carry their banner, they now have a generic Republican — in pastor Mark Harris — that does not give the GOP the resources or name recognition that they would otherwise have. Their chances of holding the seat fall accordingly.

In quantitative terms, the news might sound even better for Democratic analysts. My 2018 U.S. House forecasting model, ran with Pittenger as the candidate, estimated that Democrats would lose the seats by 10 points and had just a 25% shot at winning the district. However, changing the candidate to Harris — thus removing the advantages that incumbency presents — and rerunning the model, our best prediction is now a 2 point Republican victory and a much bigger 45% chance of Democrats flipping the seat. In familiar ratings-based terms, my prediction for NC-09 just went from Lean Republican to a pure Tossup. Pittenger’s loss in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District is a huge deal, in short.

It might not be all bad news for Republicans, however. Harris might offer them a chance for a revived conservative message in the district (whatever that may be worth in a close R+14 seat). Harris said in an interview last week: “I don’t bring that baggage to the race. I can articulate the values that we stand for as conservatives.”

Although he’s clearly biased toward his own advantages, perhaps Harris is right. Pittenger was obviously a weak candidate — he just lost a primary election, after all, something that only typically happens a handful of times per cycle — and the Republican party could have made a better choice with Harris. However, there’s no way to know how Pittenger would have fared in the 2018 midterms, so we will not be able to answer this question either way.

To be sure, Harris now has a big challenge ahead of him. In November he will face Democratic nominee Dan McCready, a veteran and former moderate Independent who won the Democratic nod 83-17, according to the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel. The Democratic advantage is not just in narrative, however; The Post reports that McCready had $1.2 million for the general election, whereas Harris has a little over $70,000. Republicans will have to shore up that fund if they want to make a competitive effort for the R+14 seat in the fall.

Finally, while primary elections don’t have a great correlation to general election results, it’s worth noting that Democrats cast 2,000 more votes on their side of the NC-09 primary contests than Republicans did — even in a lopsided contest on the left. As for what this means for November, we can only wait and see.




Republicans have lost a key advantage by nominating Mark Harris. Without an Incumbent in the district, they lose a fundamental advantage that has been evident in Congressional elections for at least forty years. By our best estimates, the result of the GOP primary election in North Carolina’s 9th moves the general election in the seat from a double-digit Republican race to a two point Tossup contest in November. Based on the math, the result of Tuesday’s election in the state is yet another boon to Democratic hopes of retaking the majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in November. Indeed, their chance of doing so in my House model increased by about 1-2% after inputting the new data. A small increase, to be sure, but small increases can make big differences in close contests.



  1. For various reasons, some analysts expect that the incumbency advantage might be worth less in 2018 than it was in 2016. [return]

G. Elliott Morris avatar
About G. Elliott Morris
Elliott is a ("big") data journalist and data scientist who specializes in American politics, public opinion, and predictive analytics. He is a government, history, and computer science student at The University of Texas at Austin and worked previously for the Pew Research Center and Decision Desk HQ.
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