He ran for Senate in Maryland in 2006 anyway. In the end, it got him another mortgage, which he used to lend his campaign $250,000, an arrest record for protesting his exclusion from a televised debate and exactly 1.2 percent of the vote.
“I’m still paying off the mortgage,” he said recently.
Every election cycle, congressional races across the country include candidates like Lichtman — long shots who know the odds but choose to run nonetheless. They are guided by hope and faith and, in some cases, ego. Some are Mr. Smith innocents driven by the belief that American democracy confers a real chance. Others are hopefuls inspired by the Truman-defeats-Dewey upsets.
Of the dozen House and Senate races in the Washington region this year, only two are considered competitive by nonpartisan analysts. Yet all of them include challengers who are waging spirited and, in some cases, costly campaigns. Among them are major and third-party candidates who have well-funded, professionally staffed campaigns that are airing television ads. Others are far more modest, featuring candidates who write their own news releases and may generate as much pity as support.
As for his decision to run, Lichtman said, “I thought I had something important to say.”
He paused a moment, then added, “It also involved a lot of illusions.”
‘We can do it’
In any year, the biggest reason that so few congressional races are competitive is the same: the power of incumbency. The average reelection rate since 1990 is 87 percent for senators and 94 percent for members of the House. First-time winners tend to be candidates who were fortunate enough to have run for an open seat or who worked their way up through lower public offices, building name recognition, political connections and a fundraising base.
The odds are not enough to discourage Patrick Murray.
After spending 24 years in the Army and retiring as a colonel in 2009, the Alexandria resident could have easily snagged a lucrative job close to home with a federal contractor. Instead he ran for Congress against the 21-year incumbent in Virginia’s 8th District, well-known Democrat James P. Moran, who has won each of his last seven elections with more than 60 percent of the vote.
After losing by 24 percentage points in 2010, Murray, a Republican, is trying again this year. Yes, he is aware of the downside: He might again spend all that time and energy — and money — for a campaign that may come up short. But he doesn’t dwell on that; he can’t, he said. It would be counterproductive.
“You just can’t say, ‘We can’t win, so why try?’ ” he said.
So he tries not to give too much weight to incumbent reelection rates or what the analysts say. He tells himself what he tells voters: that he can win, that he will win.