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Elections 2012: Despite Costly GOP Efforts, Incumbent Defeats Still Relatively Rare

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By DAVID ESPO, ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- Anti-incumbent fever is scarcely in evidence in the 2012 congressional primaries, despite costly efforts by conservatives to remake the Republican Party and this week's defeat of a Texas Democrat ousted after eight terms in office.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes' loss Tuesday night in an El Paso-centered district made him the seventh lawmaker of either party to fall in a primary for re-election this year. Three of the defeats were inevitable – cases of one incumbent running against another after congressional boundaries were shifted to conform with 2010 Census results.

In the most notable defeat of an incumbent, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar lost to tea party-backed challenger Richard Mourdock in Indiana, although the impact of the upset on the fall campaign remains uncertain.

But hundreds of incumbents have won in the 32 states that have held primaries to date, most of them with ease.

With relatively few forced retirements at the polls so far, officials in outside groups cite other evidence of electoral success.

They cheered when tea party-backed Ted Cruz qualified for a runoff against heavily favored Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a Senate Republican campaign in Texas, claimed credit for holding veteran Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., to a narrow win – even though he gained nearly 60 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race – and cited the decision of longtime Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., to retire as evidence of their impact.

"Congress has a disapproval rating of close to 90 percent in poll after poll. There's an anti-incumbent statement right there," said Curtis Ellis of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, an organization that has been involved in races against about 10 incumbents of both party.

Ellis said his organization seeks to act as an equalizer against the built-in fundraising and other advantages held by incumbents. It spent $240,000 to help Reyes' challenger, Beto O'Rourke, but a $165,000 investment elsewhere in Texas failed to dislodge Republican Rep. Ralph Hall. Nor could it engineer the defeat of Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., or Jo Bonner, R-Ala.

"It's so hard to find a challenger" in many cases, Ellis said. "It's very difficult to raise the money to do the job right. We beat the bushes looking for real races," he said. "We're not going to spend money for somebody who wears a tin-foil hat, lives in the basement of his mother's house and spends 20 bucks" to challenge a committee chairman.

Some conservatives argue that the public anger that roiled the campaign of 2010 remains a force but has taken on a different form.

"Instead of doing tea party events and protests they are donating money and they are volunteering," said Matt Hoskins of the Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. "The difference is they are doing less talking this cycle and they're doing more work."

The Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives' Fund both backed Cruz in the contested Republican Senate primary in Texas, and served notice they plan to help him against Dewhurst in the July run-off.

"Texas Republicans are just beginning to learn the truth about Dewhurst's support for tax increases and government health care, and they are starting to conclude that he's wrong for Texas," said Chris Chocola, president of the Club For Growth, which stresses economic conservatism. Its super PAC spent about $2.5 million to help Cruz, and another arm of the organization helped raise another $750,000 for his campaign account.

But Dewhurst has allies of his own for the run-off, including the Texas Conservatives Fund, which spent $2.3 million on his behalf in the primary. "Ted Cruz a conservative? No Way," says the group's website.

The impact of the primaries so far on the fall campaign is a matter of predictable dispute.

Regardless of the outcome of the primary, Democrats are unlikely to seriously compete for the Senate seat in Texas. They assert that the defeat of establishment candidates in GOP Senate primaries in Nebraska and Indiana will work to their advantage this fall, just as they say Republican divisions helped them win seats and hold control of the Senate in 2010 in Colorado, Nevada and Delaware.

"From Arizona and Missouri and Michigan and Wisconsin, every Republican Senate candidate is claiming the tea party mantle and appealing to the far right-wing fringe of their party, and largely ignoring the independent middle-class voters that are going to decide the election in November," said Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

But Texas, Nebraska and Indiana are more reliably Republican states than Delaware, Colorado or Nevada, and Republicans dismiss the talk.

In 2010 "there were times when it was obvious that if one particular candidate were nominated that candidate could not win the general election," said Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "That's not the case this time."

Unlike two years ago, the committee's chairman, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, has not intervened in primaries where no incumbent was on the ballot, an attempt to avoid antagonizing Republicans who might end up winning the nomination.

Apart from Reyes, the only Democratic incumbents to lose primaries this year are Reps. Jason Altmire and Tim Holden of Pennsylvania and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.

Kucinich lost to another incumbent, Rep. Marcy Kaptor, while Altmire was defeated by fellow Pennsylvania Rep. Mark Critz.

Not even Matt Cartwright, the lawyer who defeated Holden, cited anti-incumbent anger for his triumph. Assessing his victory on primary night, he said, "It's a combination of things, No. 1, the redistricting, and No. 2, my own core political beliefs are a much better fit for the new district."

Among House Republicans, Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio is the only incumbent defeated by an outsider. In Illinois, Rep. Dan Manzullo lost to fellow Rep. Adam Kinzinger.

Below, a look back at some of the GOP establishment candidates who have suffered defeat against Tea Party-backed contenders.

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