Winning percentage of incumbent statewide officials, legislators and members of Congress in primary runoffs since 1996.
Last week, we explored the historical success rates of first-place candidates entering primary runoffs for “open” seats, meaning no incumbent in the race. Since 2002, the candidate who finished first won 60% of the time, but that percentage varied based on their plurality (greater or less than 40%) and margin (greater or less than 10%).
Party mattered when it came to candidates who received less than 40% of the vote and finished first by less than 10 percentage points. Republicans in that situation won just 34% of the time, while Democrats won 62% of the time. Otherwise, the success rates between the parties were about the same.
Today we look at runoffs involving an incumbent. If history is a guide, how a candidate stands depends on where – as in which office – they sit.
Seven of the last eight statewide incumbents forced into runoffs prevailed. All of the victors finished first in their respective primaries, and all but one of the victors finished at least 14 points ahead of their runoff opponent.
This year, two incumbents were forced into runoffs, and both finished more than 14 points ahead of their rival:
- Gen. Ken Paxton (R) faces Land Comm. George P. Bush after finishing first in the primary, 43%-23% (+19.9); and
- Railroad Comm. Wayne Christian (R) faces Sarah Stogner after finishing first in the primary, 47%-15% (+32.4).
Christian has the largest margin of any statewide incumbent headed into a runoff since at least 1992 while Paxton finished 20 points ahead of Bush, the fourth largest margin since 1992, placing both well within the bounds of historical success.
The lone incumbent statewide elected official to lose a runoff since 1992 was former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R). He lost the 2014 runoff to then-Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) after finishing 13 points behind Patrick in the primary election.
Unlike statewide officials, sitting legislators have a historically poor track record of winning any runoffs they are forced into, especially if they are Republicans.
Since 1996, just seven of the 34 incumbent legislators forced into runoffs have prevailed. All the victors finished first in their respective primaries.
Party matters historically. Democratic legislators who finished first have won five out of 11 runoffs (45%), but only a pair of first-place Republicans have prevailed in 12 tries (17%). Those five Democrats and one of the two Republican winners received at least 44% of the vote in the primary and finished at least 14 points ahead of their runoff rivals.
No one cleared both those hurdles this year. Two of the four legislators received at least 44% of the vote, but none finished first by 10 or more points:
- Stephanie Klick (R-Fort Worth) faces David Lowe in HD91 after finishing first in the primary, 49%-39% (+9.99)
- Glenn Rogers (R-Graford) faces Mike Olcott in HD60 after finishing first in the primary, 43.7%-36% (+7.7)
- Phil Stephenson (R-Wharton) faces Stan Kitzman in HD85 after finishing first in the primary, 40%-34% (+5.5); and
- Kyle Kacal (R-College Station) faces Ben Bius in HD12 after finishing first in the primary, 47%-42% (+5.2).
Only one incumbent with a first-place margin of less than 10 points has prevailed in 26 years: Rep. J.M. Lozano (R-Kingsville) went on to win after finishing just 0.6 points ahead of second-place finisher Bill Wilson II. Lozano was facing Republican primary voters for the first time after switching parties and had the backing of state Republican leadership. The other 12, all but two of whom were Republicans, went on to lose their runoff races.
Klick’s 9.99-point margin is the second largest of any Republican incumbent since 1996, trailing only former Rep. Fred Brown (R-Bryan), who won his 2010 runoff after finishing first in the primary by nearly 18 points. She received a whisker over 49% of the vote. Both incumbents who received more than 49% of the vote in their primary since 1996 went on to win runoffs (Both were Democrats).
No incumbent this year came into the runoff after finishing second, a circumstance that has not been overcome since 1992. The last 11 incumbent legislators who came in second have lost – six Republicans and five Democrats.
History has been even less kind to congressional incumbents forced into runoffs, but the sample size is quite small. Since 1996, two incumbents – both Republicans – lost their runoffs despite a first-place finish and a greater than double-digit margin in the primary.
This year, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) faces Jessica Cisneros in CD28 after he finished just 2 points ahead of her in the primary.
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