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How to Beat Incumbents: It's Almost Impossible

November 09, 1986|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | Times Staff Writer

Here's a recipe for defeating an incumbent state legislator or congressman in San Diego County, courtesy of several local political consultants:

Take one attractive, articulate, well-financed challenger. Mix with a not-too-impressive officeholder whose incumbency has more to do with a gerrymandered district than with his own skills or achievements. Then heat and stir in some thick controversy--perhaps a disclosure that the incumbent has been selling state secrets to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, was arrested on a morals charge or, preferably, both.

"Then, maybe you'd have a chance--if you're lucky," said campaign consultant Nick Johnson, only half jokingly.

Though San Diego's Assembly members and congressmen--as well as most of those throughout California--may not be quite as politically inviolate as that unlikely "recipe" suggests, Tuesday's election results underline how difficult it is for challengers to overcome the daunting advantages that all but ensure incumbents' reelection.

All 13 congressional and state legislative incumbents on the San Diego County ballot won easily, reflecting a statewide pattern in which no state legislators or congressmen running for reelection were defeated anywhere in California. Eleven of the 13 won in landslides, by 30-plus percentage-point margins; the smallest victory margin was 16.6 percentage points.

Incumbents' performance, the strength of their challengers, statewide or national conditions and other issues obviously figure heavily in any election. However, when every single congressional, state Senate and Assembly incumbent of the more than 100 running for reelection statewide wins, most of them overwhelmingly, other factors clearly are at work.

Many local political consultants and the candidates themselves argue that the overriding explanation for the incumbents' clean sweep lies with district boundaries that have been manipulated--or gerrymandered--for partisan advantage, leaving most incumbents in a virtually impregnable position. (The word gerrymander originated in 1812, when the Massachusetts Legislature created an oddly shaped district, which some said resembled a salamander, to benefit Gov. Elbridge Gerry's party. Critics dubbed the district a "gerrymander," and the word has been part of the political lexicon ever since.)

"Just being a good candidate and having money isn't enough if you're running against an incumbent in these districts," consultant Jim Johnston said. "Because unless the other guy screws up in a major way, you're probably not going to win. It's not that the guy himself is so unbeatable. It's that it's almost impossible to beat those registration numbers."

By virtue of controlling the state Legislature at the time of the 1980 census, the Democrats were able to design "safe" congressional and legislative districts for themselves. The drawing of safe districts top-heavy with registered Democratic voters also created other safe Republican seats as a necessary byproduct.

"Democrats . . . created the beast," said Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad). "Now they have to live with it."

With the exception of Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Killea's 78th District, local Assembly members and congressmen are blessed with districts in which their respective parties hold voter registration edges of 10 to 30 percentage points--a formidable, all-but-insurmountable advantage that one local political consultant likened to "a 10-yard head start in a 100-yard race."

"It's disingenuous to even call these charades 'political races,' " said 75th Assembly District Democratic candidate Michael Lasky, who was overwhelmed by Assemblywoman Sunny Mojonnier (R-Encinitas), 69% to 26%. "You could conclude the results without ever running the election. Everyone knows that."

While the word "upset" served as a mantra for many challengers this fall and "I'm taking nothing for granted" was the operative phrase for incumbents, the outcomes in most local congressional and legislative races were widely viewed within political circles as virtual faits accomplis months before Election Day.

"It's more than an uphill climb for any challenger--it's an almost impossible task," consultant David Lewis said. "That's why these races were such yawns."

"You definitely begin at a disadvantage," admitted Republican Bill Mitchell, who lost to Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) by a 63%-34% margin--a gap 5 points wider than the Democrats' voter registration edge in the 44th Congressional District. "I still think this district is winnable for a challenger, but you do start out with some ground to make up."

Others regard even Mitchell's cautious comments as overly optimistic, arguing that the lopsided local legislative and congressional districts virtually preordain incumbents' victories.

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