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Why Incumbents Hold Their Places

May 29, 1988|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the National Journal

This has been a frustrating year for campaign reformers. Hopes of passing federal legislation to limit spending and establish public financing for congressional elections were dashed this spring when Senate Democrats were unable to crack a Republican filibuster, despite a record eight cloture votes.

Now campaign finance experts from around the country are watching California--where voters will consider an initiative establishing a similar expenditure-limiting, public-financing system for state legislative races on the June 7 ballot. Proposition 68 is backed by a diverse coalition including Common Cause and the California Business Roundtable; it is opposed, with uncharacteristic unanimity, by the bipartisan leadership of the state legislature and Gov. George Deukmejian--a group that usually couldn't agree on the weather. A competing initiative to ban spending limits, Proposition 73, shows no signs of getting off the ground.

On both the federal and state level, the drive to limit campaign spending has been energized by public concern about inexorably rising costs. In California, spending in state legislative races jumped 30% from 1984 through 1986.

Total spending, though, isn't the most dangerous trend in campaigns. More frightening is the rapidly advancing extermination of electoral competition in legislative and congressional races, insulating legislators against effective review by their constituents. Barring a scandal, it has become virtually impossible to unseat an incumbent. "Right now we reelect House members at a rate equal to that of Kremlin elections," said Mark Green, president of the Democracy Project, a progressive think tank in New York.

In 1986, only six members of the House of Representatives were defeated in the general election. Nationally, the percentage of incumbent state legislators reelected has climbed into the high 90s. In California, no one seeking reelection to the state Assembly, the state Senate or Congress was defeated in 1986. In the 1984 election, only one incumbent representative and one state legislator lost their seats.

The real scandal in campaign spending is the way money insulates incumbents from competitive races. The spending gap between incumbents and challengers has exploded over the past decade. In 1974, the average U.S. representative outspent the challenger by 46%. By 1986, the gap had widened to 174%, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the Senate, over that same period, the spending gap between incumbents and challengers expanded from 38% to 93%.

In the state, the gap is at insurmountable levels. In 1976, California Assembly incumbents outspent opponents by 3-1; a decade later, they had widened their advantage to 30-1. In recent state Senate races, incumbents overwhelmed challengers with a 62-1 spending advantage.

Why the growing chasm? A reason is the increasing tendency of Political Action Committees (PACs) to buy into, rather than challenge, the legislative status quo. Liberals often look at PACs as mortal enemies--the pernicious tools of conservative business interests dedicated to uprooting progressives. But, in practice, PACs care less about ideology than incumbency; they are the ultimate pragmatists. Instead of funding long-shot challengers, PACs increasingly prefer to invest in incumbents--even those they disagree with--so they can guarantee access to entrenched legislative powers. "This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Incumbents have a tremendous advantage so people and groups are only willing to bet on challengers in extraordinary circumstances," said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), one of the last campaign's six successful challengers.

In the 1985-86 election cycle, PACs gave almost five times more money to congressional incumbents than challengers. In this campaign, according to Ed Zuckerman, editor of a newsletter on PACs, the committees have given almost 14 times as much money to incumbents as challengers. Because so many congressional incumbents are Democrats, PACs, ironically, have become a bulwark of the Democrats' liberal Capitol Hill majority. The same trends govern dispersal of special-interest money in Sacramento, with the vast majority of funds going to incumbents, no matter their ideological persuasion.

With so much of the big money showered on incumbents, challengers haven't been able to keep up. Most reformers believe the only way to narrow the incumbents' financial advantage is to place limits on overall spending, as Proposition 68 would do. "Incumbents can always raise more money than challengers, so if you are placing your spending limits at a point the challengers can reach, you are improving their chances," said Robert M. Stern, co-director of the California Commission on Campaign Financing that wrote the proposal the initiative is based on.

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