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Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 28, 2021.OCTAVIO JONES/Reuters

Ordinarily a mayoral primary in Pittsburgh merits no notice beyond the confluence of the city’s three rivers, and hardly any awareness even within the city limits. Customarily a mayoral primary across Pennsylvania in the state capital of Harrisburg attracts no attention, because debates under the lime-green Capitol dome dominate the city’s conversation. And a mayoral primary in Allentown, once known to Canadians as a hostile home for colonial loyalists who eventually fled across the border to settle in British North America? No one outside the Lehigh Valley gives a hoot.

But in the past several days, the whispers emerging from the second, third and 13th biggest cities in Pennsylvania amounted to a shout. In all three places, Democratic incumbents – favourites in each case – were booted out of office. The result: evidence that this is a difficult environment for elected officials in the United States.

“The incumbency advantage is withering, particularly in light of polarization and the phenomenon of politics being viewed through the lens of political tribalism,” said David C. Barker, director of the the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at Washington’s American University. “Activists on the left and right are quicker to get rid of officials they feel aren’t pure enough.”

Indeed, the pressure on incumbents has seldom been greater.

That pressure accounts in large measure for the failure of Republican lawmakers in Congress to support an inquiry into the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, for the expulsion of Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming from her position in the House leadership, and more generally for the hold that former president Donald J. Trump has on GOP officeholders.

“A lot of Republicans in the House and Senate are worried about getting on the wrong side of Trump and facing a challenger he supports,” said Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist. “He can support challenges to a few of them, though not to all of them at once.”

Primary challenges are perhaps an even greater threat for Democrats. Three of the six members of the “Squad,” the left-oriented House progressives who have roiled Democratic waters – Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Cori Bush of Missouri – defeated established, liberal-leaning Democrats in primaries.

And it was in part because of the activist campaign organization work of a cadre of progressive teenagers in Massachusetts that Senator Edward J. Markey, now in his 46th year on Capitol Hill, staved off a brutal Democratic primary challenge last September from Representative Joe Kennedy III, the grandson of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the grandnephew of president John F. Kennedy.

“Every election for an incumbent is a job evaluation, and for the first time in a long time, voters looking at politicians in ‘safe’ seats across party lines are willing to make that evaluation,” said Erin Kramer, executive director of One Pennsylvania, which backed state Representative Ed Gainey, who as a result of his successful challenge to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is almost certain to become the city’s first Black chief executive. “Challengers are in a better position today than they have been in a long time.”

This comes at a time when Americans have little respect for government. A Gallup measurement last year showed that 48 per cent of Americans said they trusted government, a stark contrast with the 73 per cent who trusted government in 1974, when Richard M. Nixon was president and the news was dominated by the Watergate hearings.

In last year’s congressional elections, eight House members were defeated in primaries, a figure that has been exceeded only once since 1992. Ms. Cheney faces at least four challengers for the Republican nomination for the single House seat in Wyoming she now occupies.

One big Democratic target for a challenge is veteran Representative Jim Cooper, of Tennessee, who will be seeking his 16th term. He has sown the ire of progressives for years and beat back a challenge from public defender Keeda Haynes last year. Already Odessa Kelly, co-founder of a group fighting for racial and economic equality, has announced a primary challenge to Mr. Cooper and has the backing of the Justice Democrats group that helped catapult Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, Ms. Pressley and Ms. Bush into the House.

At the same time, another high-profile Democrat, Governor Gavin Newsom of California, faces the ultimate anti-incumbency challenge: an effort, primarily by conservatives, to utilize the state’s peculiar constitutional provision permitting citizens to remove office holders in the middle of their terms. Though Mr. Newsom is likely to prevail, he has, according to a Los Angeles Times poll, angered Californians with his handling of homelessness, housing affordability and crime.

“Incumbents have to make very controversial decisions that have impact on the economy and people’s lives,” said Mark Baldassare, who directs public polling for the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. “They’ve been under a microscope, especially on COVID. Incumbents have track records, and it is very hard to please everyone, especially during a time of such intense scrutiny of public officials.”

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