Idaho history says odds are 23-1 against upset of Rep. Simpson

GOP challenger Bryan Smith has the deep-pocketed Club for Growth on his side, but history suggests the odds are against him, writes University of Minnesota political scientist Eric Ostermeier.

In the 61 congressional elections since Idaho became a state, 88 of 92 incumbent congressmen have been renominated by their party, or 96 percent.

“(W)hile primary challenges to U.S. Representative are not uncommon in Idaho, successful primary challenges are quite rare,” writes Ostermeier in a Friday blog post, “Could Mike Simpson be Added to a Very, Very Short List?”

Only one Idaho incumbent has lost his party’s nomination in the modern era, with three of the four upsets coming between 1908 and 1918. Since 1918, the incumbent renomination success rate is almost 99 percent, 81 out of 82.

The outlier is former 2nd District Republican Rep. Orval Hansen, who was defeated by George Hansen in 1974. The matchup was similar to Smith-Simpson in one respect: George Hansen ran as a more conservative alternative to Orval Hansen.

But it differs in another. Smith is a largely unknown Idaho Falls lawyer who has never run for office and Simpson has won 30 consecutive elections, primary and general, since first running for the Legislature in 1984. Simpson served seven terms in the Idaho House and is in his eighth term in the U.S. House.

George Hansen was already a huge name in Idaho politics in 1974, having been elected mayor of Alameda in 1961 and then backing the consolidation of the smaller city into Pocatello, where Hansen subsequently was on the City Council. In 1964, George Hansen was elected to Congress in the 2nd District and re-elected in 1966. George Hansen then challenged two-term Democratic Sen. Frank Church, but lost in 1968.

Orval Hansen won the first of his three terms while “George the Dragonslayer” was breathing fire in Church’s direction. When George Hansen made his comeback bid, he was the best-known out-of-office politician in the state.  In his comeback bid, George Hansen defeated Orval Hansen by 22,114 votes to 20,109 votes, or 52 percent to 48 percent.

The other incumbents to lose their party’s nominations were:

Æ Republican Rep. Burton French in 1908.

Æ Republican Rep. Thomas Hamer in 1910, who was defeated in a rematch with French.

Æ Republican Rep. Robert McCracken in 1916.

Of the 88 incumbents renominate by their party, 13 lost the general election.

Ostermeier is a scholar at the Humphrey School of Public affairs and quite keen on such lists. His blog post includes a chart listing the fate of every Idaho incumbent since 1892.

Ostermeier has also chronicled:

Æ How Idaho Govs. Cecil Andrus and Bob Smylie are among the 50 longest-serving governors ever.

Æ How Idaho is the only state in the union to never have held a special congressional election.

Æ How Idaho Sen. Jim Risch holds a seat that’s been in GOP hands since 1949, the third-longest string in the nation.


Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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